Thirty people who couldn’t otherwise afford knee and hip-joint replacements will receive the surgery for free, as a charity organization originally focused on international patients revs up in Denver.
Of the 35 states where the service is offered, Operation Walk USA will treat the largest number of patients in Colorado.
Eight surgeons working without compensation at Porter Adventist Hospital in Denver, Lincoln Medical Center in Parker and St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction will complete the work by Saturday.
Lakewood resident Joe Abeyta, 42, was the first under the knife in Denver.
Osteoarthritis in his right hip had deteriorated the cartilage that separates the ball and socket. When the charity approved his operation earlier this year, doctors told Abeyta his hip was rubbing bone-on-bone.
“My right hip, it looks like somebody took a ball-peen hammer and knocked the life out of it,” Abeyta said, recalling one of his X-rays before his surgery Monday. “Some days I can walk. Some days it’s like someone is sticking a knife in there and turning it.”
Abeyta said he has been “carrying over my load,” throughout his 17-year career in construction, physically straining himself when supplies are far from an excavation site or when a forklift is not available. Over the past year, he said, he was almost constantly using pain and anti-inflammatory medication.
“I think it was my choice of profession that didn’t go well with my hip,” Abeyta said.
Abeyta’s surgeon, Dr. Charlie Yang, on Monday did four of the 17 joint replacements scheduled at Porter Adventist, using a less-invasive technique known as a direct anterior approach. The technique, popular among American surgeons, allows faster healing.
Abeyta woke up from his 9 a.m. surgery around 2 p.m. and took three steps before dinner.
When Yang traveled to Panama, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic with Operation Walk, he found that none of the local surgeons were familiar with the anterior approach. The technique, which is difficult to learn, initially takes longer to execute than the typical posterior approach, Yang said. It also requires special instruments, which don’t come cheap.
The tools are available in American hospitals, and have been used in Operation Walk USA surgeries since the first 85 patients were treated in 18 states in 2011.
Yang said his work for Operation Walk is some of the best he does all year.
“The satisfaction you get after helping these people who could never afford joint replacement — but after the replacement, they’re up walking, smiling — it’s gratifying,” Yang said.
Dr. Douglas Dennis, president-elect of Operation Walk USA and founder of the charity’s Denver chapter, said his work on severely deformed hips and knees in Latin America has tested and strengthened his surgical skills.
“It has made me a better surgeon for my Denver patients,” said Dennis, a surgeon at Porter Adventist.
One of his female patients in Nicaragua wanted a child but was physically unable to give birth.
“She couldn’t have a baby because she couldn’t spread her legs apart and didn’t have money for a cesarean section,” Dennis said.
Dennis replaced both hips of the 37-year-old. “We went back to Nicaragua 18 months later, and I got to hold her baby.”
The team, he said, takes every piece of equipment necessary for the surgeries to the host countries — from the first drug to the last Band-Aid. The cargo has weighed as much as 8 tons.
Millions of dollars of in-kind donations typically pay for all but about $125,000 of each of the Denver chapter’s semiannual trips, he said, including plane flights for more than 50 staff members.
The high number of patients receiving free joint-replacement surgery in Colorado belies the state’s low number of elderly people. According to 2012 Census data, there are about 2 percent fewer people over age 65 in Colorado than the national average, and fewer than most other states where Operation Walk’s 70 participating hospitals are serving 230 patients this year.
In Colorado, Porter’s support allowed the number of patients who could get free surgery there to increase to 20 from 12, although only 17 qualified, including Abeyta.
Six device manufacturers donated all of the hip and knee implants for Operation Walk USA this year. Each surgery costs the hospital about $30,000 to $35,000 in antibiotics, pain medication, hospital stays, operation-room time and machine use, Dennis said.
“Operation Walk has not asked me for any money at all,” Abeyta said.
Alison Noon: 303-954-1223, email@example.com