Dr. Parker's Blog


Dr. Parker's Blog

Dr. Parker was one of the many amazing doctors who traveled with us to Ghana in 2016. Here is his personal account of his experiences working with Operation Walk Syracuse

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April 16th, 2016

In medical school, we all learned that sickle cell trait, while profoundly destructive to the joints, was genetically protective against malaria. It's an odd quirk of genetics, one that has allowed sickle trait to be naturally selected for in certain parts of the world, despite its negative effects. Individuals with sickle trait are protected against contracting malaria, and so they survive preferentially, long enough to put their genes into the gene pool. But, training and practicing in America, physicians just filed that away as esoterica. None of us ever really saw it in practice.

Well... here it is in the real world. The vast majority of patients we are seeing this week in Africa have a destructive hip arthritis that is directly secondary to their sickle cell trait - a trait that has thus far protected them against malaria, which remains endemic throughout much of the African subcontinent.

Today was Screening Day for Operation Walk Syracuse in Ghana, Africa. At 7:30 a.m., as the heat of the day presented itself, so did about 100 potential surgical candidates, who quickly filled the waiting area at St. Joseph Hospital in Koforidua.

It didn't take us long to recognize the trend: patient after patient presented today with a very advanced, destructive hip arthritis secondary to a process called "AVN," or avascular necrosis. Again, it's a disorder that we see only rarely in the US. But today, we saw it over and over and over again, and mostly in patients in their twenties and thirties.

Each patient was interviewed and examined by our surgeons and nurses, and their surgical candidacy was assessed. Then a long, hot afternoon session of Grand Rounds helped us pare down the total to a manageable week of surgical patients. By definition, our resources are limited, but we are committed to doing as many cases as we possibly can. We will work fast, but it's still most important for us to work safe.

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And finally, in the late afternoon, we got the ball rolling with our first surgical cases of the week. Two teams, two rooms, one hip replacement and one knee replacement... done.

Tomorrow we start the surgical phase of our trip with focus - the goal is eleven joints a day for four days.

Unique challenges are presenting themselves: we have many more scheduled hips than knees... Koforidua seems to have pretty regular rolling blackouts... and even though the primary spoken language in Ghana is English, there is actually a need for English-to-English translators, as the dialects and accents are so different from our American versions. But we are determined to bring our expertise and efficiency to bear in this environment, help teach the local providers how to work more effectively, and change some lives while we're at it

One of our amazing surgical teams!

One of our amazing surgical teams!

April 24th, 2016

A bird sang outside the window. A dog pushed its nose under my arm. The first mauslin-covered light of morning crept its way into the room. Morning. And I realized: I am in my own bed. 

Coffee. Today there is going to be real coffee.

I have ruminated on the wonders of modern transportation for so many years that any mention of it makes my teenagers roll their eyes in anguish (which means: I am doing it just right. #dad!).

But instead of growing accustomed to the remarkable way we humans can move around our planet, I seem to become only more astounded by it. Did you ever fly over the Rocky Mountains? Could you do it in a covered wagon? In an afternoon? No. Nope.

Imagine that phone call: "Mom? Hi. Listen, we're in Chicago, and we are delayed. Yeah... the oxen died. And Timmy has Yellow Fever. So instead of October, it's going to be next June."

In 1750 - less than 300 years ago, and just the blink of an eye in the grand expanse of human history - a journey from Africa's Gold Coast to central New York would have taken at least 4 months, and 3 of them would've been on a wooden sailing ship crossing the unpredictable Atlantic Ocean. No weather reports, no satellite images, no communication whatsoever.

Yesterday, the members of Operation Walk Syracuse made that journey in around 21 hours. Woke up in Ghana, went to bed in Syracuse. I mean... come on. Think about that.

Our arrival home and subsequent dispersal has lent itself to a sort of hangover effect. This morning I will sit down at breakfast without all those people. And it seems odd.

Those people. The thing I cannot adequately describe - the thing that altogether defies words - is the feeling I have every time I think about what the people of Op Walk Syracuse have done. The nurses, the therapists, the techs, the support staff... each person worked 12-14 hour days in 90° heat, maximizing their individual contributions of expertise to a community of disabled people that otherwise would have had no access to orthopedic care. Ever.

And - here's the thing - they each took personal vacation time to do it. This blows me away, every time I think about it.

Those people - they don't work FOR Operation Walk. They don't work WITH Operation Walk. They ARE Operation Walk.

Everywhere we went in Ghana, there were TV cameras. Microphones. Interviews. A groundswell of media attention followed our progress closely. Lots and lots of people in Ghana were watching.

A stone thrown into a still pond creates a circumferential ripple that propagates in every direction. And the stone that these Op Walk people have thrown... I think it's entirely possible that its ripple will spread through Ghana, and even Western Africa, and help change the way the population thinks about health care.

Maybe the people of Op Walk touched more than 46 people. Maybe they touched millions.

I know I speak for all of the docs at Op Walk when I say: Thank you. Our hats are off to you. You carefully plucked the gossamer concept of Op Walk from the clouds and gave it real wings. And it flew. Man, did it fly. 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. Great work.

Nice to be home. Lovely to wake up in our own beds. Can't wait for the next trip.

Now... coffee.