Tampa Bay Times
BY: Jasmine Wildflower Osmond
November 29, 2017
TAMPA — In Antigua Guatemala there is a hospital that you can’t go to with a sudden injury or traditional emergency. While there, Tampa orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kenneth Gustke saw potential patients lining the walls of every corridor, lobby and even the streets outside. All for the chance at lifesaving surgeries.
For thirteen years, Dr. Gustke has been making missionary trips to hospitals like this to perform hip and knee replacements for no cost to the patients.
“It brings us back to the reason that we went into medicine to begin with,” he said. “It’s not the entrepreneurship, or the business stuff, or headaches of paper work. It’s all back to the pure aspect of providing medicine. Providing medical care.”
For the past 20 years, a Los Angeles program started by Dr. Lawrence Dorr called Operation Walk has been organizing volunteer health professionals to go to countries like these and perform life changing knee and hip replacements for no cost to the patient.
For Gustke it can take up to a year to plan one of these trips. The first one was to Havana, Cuba.
In late August, Dr. Gustke brought six people from his team to Antigua, Guatemala: physician’s assistant Susie Heinrichs, nurse anesthetist Jessica Zavesky, registered nurse Marlyn Cua, scrub tech Jose Mesa, and translator Monica Coconubu-Sanchez.
There they were met with 54 other health care providers from across the country. Some who came by themselves to help.
The Hospital de San Pedro in Antigua, was set up by monks and used weekly by different medical missionary groups that come to perform every medical procedure from cleft palates to eye surgeries.
In one part of the hospital Gustke and his team were doing knee replacements, another group would be doing something completely different. Patients for every need lined the walls. Although for most trips he has provided both hip and knee replacements, this most recent trip they only did knees.
They can’t predict how many and what sizes of prosthetics they’ll need beforehand, so in order to help as many people as possible they focused just on knees.
It costs $100,000 to make one of these trips, he said. The majority of that is donated or fundraised through his existing patients at the Florida Orthopaedic Institute, of which he is a founding member. The attending staff for these trips needs to either take vacation days or to take the pay cut. No one gets paid for these trips, but no patients pay either.
“I just rely on patients that are grateful here for the knee and hip replacements I’ve done for them to provide donations to this kind of cause.
Even if a patient isn’t approved, they are often provided with physicals, walkers, therapy or other equipment to make their lives easier, said Susie Heinrich, a physician’s assistant.
Because the hospital is used exclusively by volunteers there is no traditional staff. Everyone cleaned. Everyone screened, and if a patient needed help getting out of bed, it was anyone’s job to step in.
“When we’re there it’s about providing care,” she said. “From the nurses to the scrub techs, we clean the rooms, we mop the floors, we take care of everything.”
For many who did receive surgery, it was life changing, said Monica Coconubu-Sanchez, the translator. One man made 40 three-hour trips just for a chance to be seen.
Like many other patients, the condition of his knees prevented him from walking, working, and taking care of his family. After more than a hundred hours in travel, he was finally given his freedom back.
“The patients are so grateful and their families are so grateful,” Coconubu-Sanchez said. “And it just makes you feel like you’ve done something good.”
Contact Jasmine Wildflower Osmond at firstname.lastname@example.org.