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Charlie Stewart
Miracles From HEAVEN
Holiday 2009

CSIt was hot, even for summer time in Central America. The hospital wards were crowded. The beds were crammed together, with the head of one bed touching the foot of the next.With just one bathroom for the whole floor, there was little privacy. And all the patients there were suffering from the pain of severe arthritis.

Then why was everyone smiling?

Because—as one patient said it best—milagros del cielo had appeared.

The miracles from heaven took the form of a team of 50 doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and other health care professionals from Pittsburgh and across the country led by Shadyside resident Dr. Anthony M. DiGioia III.

The group traveled as part of Operation Walk Pittsburgh to the small town of Antigua, Guatemala, for a week in August, where DiGioia and five other surgeons performed 63 successful knee and hip replacements on 50 patients suffering from debilitating joint disease.

CSOperation Walk Pittsburgh is one of seven U.S.-based chapters of Operation Walk, a not-for-profit, medical services
organization that performs free knee and hip replacement surgeries mainly in developing countries.

DiGioia—an orthopedic surgeon in private practice at Renaissance Orthopaedics within Magee-Womens Hospital of
UPMC—founded the chapter last year after learning about the organization’s vital work while attending a medical conference. His AMD3 Foundation—DiGioia’s initials— which promotes education and research to improve the delivery of patient care and its outcomes, then helped raisemore than $60,000 toward the cost of the Antigua mission.

“Antigua is up in the mountains at about 5,000 feet in altitude,” says DiGioia, a Harvard Medical School graduate, who also holds engineering degrees from Carnegie Mellon University. “As in most countries like Guatemala, it’s a walking society where you have to be able to walk to be a functioning member of their society.”

However, as arthritis develops over time, patients afflicted with the disease will almost subconsciously adjust and limit their activity because of the pain, making even the simplest of tasks painful to accomplish. And without access to sophisticated medical care—let alone joint replacement surgery— the levels of arthritis that people live with in
Antigua are much worse than what DiGioia treats every day in Pittsburgh.

CS“If it weren’t for the groups that come down there, like our group, then there’s no way that their own health system could provide that kind of care for that kind of problem,” he says.

So when the Operation Walk Pittsburgh team members—equipped with seven pallets of donated medical supplies—arrived on the scene at Santo Hermano Pedro Hospital, they were welcomed as heroes by their patients.

“As we started coming through, somebody yelled out ‘Los medicos,’ and when they all started cheering, it hit me,” recalls team co-leader Tom Maidens, a registered nurse in the orthopedic unit at Magee. “The feeling of pride that it gave us was just amazing. It took my breath away how happy they were to see us, knowing that they were going to be able to get their joints fixed and walk normally again.”

Physician assistant Mike Halahan of Aspinwall describes the hospital within the Franciscan monastery where the team
worked as being “fairly modern,” but requiring a different mindset in the operating room. “Down in Guatemala you had to
problem-solve,” Halahan says. “So for me it was fun to see Dr. DiGioia in that atmosphere, where he was thinking outside of our normal box. And I think he had fun with it, I really do.”

Halahan also was moved by the surgeon’s commitment to giving back to the global community. “For him to take a break from his practice here just reaffirms to me that after all these years, after all those surgeries, Dr. DiGioia is still in it for the right reason,” he says.

Twelve of the patients had both knees replaced that week, including a 24-year-old who survived leukemia as a child, but in the treatment process, suffered joint deterioration in both knees akin to that typically seen in a 70-year-old.

“The knee replacement is one of the most painful operations we do in orthopedics,” explains UPMC orthopedic surgeon
Dr. Anton Plakseychuk, also of Shadyside, who went on the trip to Antigua with his wife, Dr. Anna Uskova, an anesthesiologist at UPMC Shadyside hospital.

“In the United States we rarely do two knees at the same time, but the patients for whom we did bilateral knee replacements in Guatemala did unbelievably well,” Plakseychuk says.

As the patients emerged from surgery, they were surrounded by family members. It was a joyous atmosphere, with everyone encouraging each other as they recovered from their operations and learned their physical therapy exercises.

DiGioia brought his wife (and office manager), Cathy, and their daughters Angela, 25, Noelle, 23, and Maria, 21, along
for the trip. They did everything from washing surgical instruments and changing dressings to making dinner arrangements for 50 people each night. Fluent in Spanish, Angela also was an invaluable translator.

Building on the success of the recent mission, team members will perform six free joint replacement surgeries during
Thanksgiving week at Magee for patients without health insurance. And perhaps as memories of the exhausting 10- to 12-hour days in surgery begin to fade, the team plans to return to Guatemala next August.

“I’ve never worked that hard in my entire life, says team co-leader Janice Harmon, who oversaw the operating room in Antigua.

But Harmon understood the meaning of their efforts when she saw the smiles on every patient’s face during a group photo they took at the end of the trip.

“It made everything worth it just to see them all sitting there smiling and know that you probably gave somebody their life back,” she says. “If I never did anything else in my life, I did this.”

For DiGioia, the Operation Walk Pittsburgh trip was a first step toward making a difference on an international scale.

“It can be overwhelming at times, if you think about solving all of the world’s problems,” he says. “But you have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is doctor to patient. And at a grass roots level, Operation Walk Pittsburgh can achieve some positive results, one patient at a time.”

For more information, visit www.amd3.org or
phone 412-683-3260.

With many thanks to SHADY AVE magazine for granting me permission to reprint on my website.


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copyright Charlie Stewart IMS