By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Tuesday, May 05, 2009 | 12:09 am
Gurminder Singh Ahuja, left, and Harpal Singh Khanuja, right, orthopedic surgeons from Baltimore and founders of Operation Walk Maryland, observe a patient on their inaugural trip to Lima, Peru.
Photo Source: Operation Walk Maryland
Julio Ore Perez lay awake under local anesthesia at a hospital in Lima, Peru, while a Sikh surgeon worked to replace his knees, for free. Perez could only see the curtain between him and the surgical team. But when they finished and pulled the curtain back, he could not believe his eyes. His legs were straight again, after more than six years.
“This is what Operation Walk is all about,” said Gurminder Singh Ahuja, his doctor. “It had a dramatic life-changing effect (for Perez). The whole team got emotional.” Perez was walking a few days later.
Perez’s was one of 48 surgeries performed last October to replace knee and hip joints for the impoverished people of Peru. It was the inaugural medical mission for the nonprofit’s Maryland chapter, founded last year by fellow orthopedic surgeon, Harpal Singh Khanuja, both from The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
The idea originally came from Harpal Singh and his wife Maria, an orthopedic nurse, who were invited on a medical mission to El Salvador for the nonprofit’s Los Angeles chapter.
“It was very rewarding to do this work for people and not expecting anything in return,” Harpal Singh said. “It’s really their gratitude that you cherish the most.”
He and Gurminder Singh hatched out a plan for a chapter in their home state in January 2008, and called on their friend, Prabhjot Singh Likhari, to build the organization.
The concept was to perform these complicated surgeries on people in the third world where Arthritis progresses to its end stages and reconstructing joints becomes technically challenging, they said. These people either don’t have access to this expertise or can’t afford to go to a big city or fly out of the country to have the surgery.
They organized 50 medical volunteers to form 5 surgical teams, raised about $100,000 to cover cargo and travel expenses, and secured one-half million dollars in donations of medical equipment and pharmaceutical supplies. The host country only provided hospital space.
“It was the most gratifying thing I have done,” Gurminder Singh said. Another memorable patient was a woman in her 50”s who had severe Arthritis in her hips. It became very embarrassing for her because she could not sit on a toilet.
“We did both hips and now she can function,” he said. “She is able to walk again.”
The trip to Peru was like a training exercise. The framework from a previous mission by the Los Angeles group was still there for the Maryland group to transition easily. They went to the same hospital and took some volunteers from Los Angeles group.
The goal is to learn the ropes and move on to Punjab, Harpal Singh said. “It’s done more than cross my mind.”