Stephen H. Cummings, MD, FAAOS
For patients who suffer from debilitating degenerative disease in their hips and knees, joint replacement surgery is a life-changing option.
Too often, however, that solution is out of reach for people who don’t have health insurance and can’t afford a procedure that can run upwards of $20,000 in Hampton Roads. Many begin to lose hope as they struggle with worsening pain and decreased mobility.
Enter Operation Walk USA. The independent medical charitable organization partners with hospitals and orthopedic surgeons around the country, along with implant manufacturers, to provide free prosthetic joints and surgeries to patients who meet certain financial criteria.
“We’ve seen people who have had difficulty walking and functioning for years,” says Dr. Stephen Cummings, a program participant since 2018. “Some of them are crying in my office because they’re so overjoyed that there is a way for them to get help. It’s such a blessing to be able to get them out of pain and back to what they love to do.”
Operation Walk USA was founded in 2011 by the late Dr. Lawrence Dorr, a Los Angeles-based orthopedic surgeon who previously had run missions in underserved countries. Since then, the nonprofit has helped 800-plus patients nationwide, with an in-kind donation value of $21.6 million.
Each year, Operation Walk USA pairs an average of 55 surgeons with 80 patients, involving hospitals in more than 20 states. Patients receive all aspects of care for free, including preoperative and postoperative appointments, hospitalization as necessary, and home and outpatient physical therapy, which typically takes around eight to 10 weeks.
Dr. Cummings has operated on 13 people to date from Hampton Roads and Richmond; he hopes to have eight new patients in 2021. Both Mary Immaculate Hospital and Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center currently donate operating room time, equipment and support staff for up to four patients per year.
While some patients are unemployed, many have part-time or full-time jobs but don’t receive employer-sponsored insurance. They often make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, yet not enough to buy private coverage. Most also are between the ages of 50 and 64 – too young for Medicare.
“They thought they’d just have to wait for a joint replacement until age 65, which in some cases is 10 or 15 long years away,” Dr. Cummings relates. “There’s this real doughnut hole of patients that get lost in the shuffle, and we’re trying hard to reach them.”
During the year, prospective patients can register on Operation Walk USA’s website, where they also enter their financial information. If they qualify medically, are uninsured and have an income at or below 300 percent of federal poverty guidelines, Operation Walk USA works to match them with the closest participating surgeon and hospital.
Operations take place near the end of each year. After the coronavirus pandemic forced the program to go on hiatus last year, surgery dates have been set for Nov. 29 to Dec. 4, 2021.
Operation Walk USA focuses on hip and knee surgeries as they are the two most in-demand joint replacements, especially with an aging population. Arranging cases requires teamwork from a variety of community medical providers and awareness among local patients that they might be eligible for a free operation.
“A lot of physicians travel internationally to help people, which is wonderful, but there are plenty of people right here in our own community who need help,” Dr. Cummings notes. “You don’t have to go far – or go anywhere – to make a real difference.”
To learn more, visit operationwalkusa.org