Students gain professional experience in Viet Nam

by Mariel Canas, News Co-Editor

Operation Walk is a private, not-for-profit, volunteer medical services organization that provides free surgical treatment for patients in developing countries (and occasionally in the U.S.), that do not have access to life-improving care for arthritis or other debilitating bone and joint conditions. Operation Walk also educates in-country orthopedic surgeons, nurses, physical therapists and other health care professionals on the most advanced treatments and surgical techniques for diseases of the hip and knee joints. This is done in conjunction with surgeries to help create a lasting contribution to patient care in developing countries.

Since March 2005, 12 Cornell students have joined the Operation Walk missions to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Peru and China at the invitation of Operation Walk founder and 1963 Cornell graduate Dr. Lawrence D. Dorr. The students work alongside a team of medical professionals performing joint replacements and assisting in all aspects of the trip. The experience exemplifies how Cornell students are applying theory to practice through Dimensions: The Center for the Science and Culture of Health care.

The most recent Operation Walk trip for Cornell students took place in Viet Nam during spring break. Fourth years Heidi Mitchell and Garrett Feddersen took part in the trip. Mitchell said, "I wanted to participate in Operation Walk for the opportunity to help underserved people while gaining exposure to various health care professions. I also had never had the opportunity to travel or study abroad, so the chance to experience another culture while providing health care in another country was an additional incentive for me to apply."

Operation Walk provides students with unique professional and personal experiences. "My main goal for the trip was to connect with the patients that we helped, and with the help of our translators I was able to hear a lot of stories and talk with a lot of patients and families. I was also able to observe a lot of knee and hip replacement surgeries, something I wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to do as an undergraduate," Mitchell said.

When asked about the most difficult parts of her trip, Mitchell said, "The first couple of days on Operation Walk, I was in surgery for the entire day and hadn't had the opportunity to interact with any patients. My first day on the floor with patients was the first moment where I fully realized the impact we were making on the patients' (and their families') lives." The experiences that make up Operation Walk also have emotional effects on those involved. Mitchell said, "That initial realization was rather emotional for me, but the consolation came from the fact that ultimately we were there to make a positive difference. Saying goodbye to patients and the Op Walk team was also extremely difficult. I hope to stay in touch with everyone - I've got lots of emails to write!"

Working with individuals in Viet Nam provided many memories for Operation Walk participants. Mitchell said, "I would say one of the more memorable moments was when I was doing physical therapy with a man who had had a knee replacement surgery the day before. I noticed he was walking really well, so I asked him if he could walk without the help of any crutches. He did, and after that he would not sit back down. His photograph was taken by many of the local newspapers, and he was also interviewed. It was truly inspiring to see him make as much progress as he did in such a short amount of time."

Such experiences provide lasting lessons to Operation Walk volunteers. Mitchell said, "I feel that I've gained a greater sense of empathy from connecting with the patients and families that our team helped. I have a renewed commitment to pursuing a career in health care, and also a renewed sense of reaching out to those in great need." The professionals whom students work with also play a large part in their experiences with Operation Walk. Mitchell said, "I had some wonderful mentors in the surgeons, nurses, physical therapists and volunteers on the trip. Overall, I learned a lot about both the technical and personal aspects of medicine that I will carry with me and hopefully pass on one day." Being in a foreign country has specific benefits for those who volunteer for Operation Walk. Mitchell said, "It's difficult to put into words what experiencing another culture can do for a person. Traveling to another country to help people in need is something that can reiterate how important it is to give back - you may just make all the difference in one person's life."

Volume: 128

Issue: 14