2010 Cornellian Article: Operation Walk Viet Nam

Students moved by Operation Walk

Cornellians participate in alumnus-founded non-profit program

by Ariel Glasman

The partnership between Cornell College and Operation Walk, a non-profit organization providing free surgical treatments for patients with bone and joint conditions in developing countries and parts of the United States, celebrated its five year anniversary this year. This January, two students, fourth year Allie Nappe and third year Eric Reese, traveled with the Operation Walk team based out of Los Angeles to Viet Nam. They observed joint replacement surgeries, assisted with physical therapy and learned about the history and present state of Viet Nam.

Operation Walk began in 1995, and was founded by Dr. Lawrence D. Dorr, a 1963 Cornell alum and leader in hip and joint replacement research and surgery. Part of the basis of the program is the idea that pre-med students learn best by witnessing actual surgical demonstrations. This, combined with the need for accessible bone and joint treatment in undeveloped countries, resulted in Operation Walk.

Cornell students have played an active role on Operation Walk teams since 2005 with more than a dozen students traveling to countries such as El Salvador and China as part of the Dimensions program, also founded by Dr. Dorr.

To participate in Operation Walk, students undergo an intensive application and selection process involving not only letters of recommendation, a resume and transcript but also an evaluation of students’ work ethic, communication skills and ability to work under extreme pressure in a variety of environments. Because Operation Walk entails staying for an extended period of time in a different country, selected students must also become acquainted with different cultural practices.

Assisting with this last piece was third year Nguyen Vo. As part of preparation for the trip, an informal session concerning Viet Nam was orchestrated by Vo, a Viet Namese resident who decided to contribute to Operation Walk by holding a presentation about the people and culture in the country. Vo said, “I thought it would be more for them to get first-hand information on what life is like in Viet Nam. The presentation would help these students feel more comfortable and enjoyable when they get to Viet Nam and this should bring them a greater experience in Viet Nam.”

Operation Walk participants were not the only people there in attendance; other members of the campus community came because of personal interest in the country.

In addition to becoming acquainted with the country, the selected students must also prepare for the trip by meeting with past Operation Walk participants in order to share ideas and, afterwards, prepare and present a paper about their experiences. While there, as part of the Los Angeles Operation Walk team, students worked side-by-side with surgeons, anesthetists, internists and nurses, helping patients with all parts of the pre-operational, surgical and post-operational processes. Average week-long missions include all of this as well as training in areas like X-raying and anesthesiology.

Reese and Nappe were in Viet Nam from Jan. 14 - 21. Reese said, “Overall, I thought the experience was amazing. The chance for undergrads to get the experience of many different aspects of the medical field, from nursing to physical therapy to being a doctor, in a setting of a different culture, like Viet Nam, is something definitely unique to Cornell.”

Reese went on to describe the condition of the hospitals themselves, noting that the poverty present in the lives of many of Vietnamese orthopedic patients resulted in having to rely on family members for food, blankets and other necessities: “Many of [the Vietnamese patients] had heartbreaking stories, and it was the people you were really honored to help. Interacting with the patients and the medical staff is something I’ll never forget. The entire Operation Walk team was amazing and willing to help you learn and succeed.”

Those seeking more information about Operation Walk should visit the official website at operationwalk.org, and for more about the Los Angeles team Reese and Nappe traveled with, visit http://www.operationwalk.org/california/losangeles/overview.