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Sikh Surgeons’ Seva
From Ludhiana to El Salvador

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Thursday, November 08, 2012 | 12:12 am

Orthopedic surgeons Gurminder Singh Ahuja, left, and Harpal Singh Khanuja, right. A Sikh patient in Ludhiana is walking without a cane after his free knee-replacement surgery from Operation Walk Maryland.

Photo Source: operationwalkmd.org

Reporting from Baltimore - After two trips to Ludhiana, an American surgical team, led by two Sikh orthopedists, will perform free knee and hip replacements next year for about 50 impoverished patients in El Salvador.

Operation Walk Maryland, led by Harpal Singh Khanuja and Gurminder Singh Ahuja, is a non-profit, volunteer medical-service organization that provides free joint replacements for very poor people in developing countries, and in the United States.

Their patients suffer from disabling arthritis and other debilitating bone and joint conditions, and have little to no access to life-improving care.

A team of about 45 medical personnel will travel to the San Rafael Hospital in San Salvador at the end of January 2013. A pre-team has already visited the hospital and the patient screening has begun.

El Salvador is a very small country with a population about that of Maryland, said Juan Jose Daboub, former minister of the treasury, who now lives in Potomac, Maryland. The country experiences 4,400 new case of arthritis every year.

“Any outside help is welcome,” he said at the organization’s annual fundraiser dinner on Oct. 27, in Baltimore. “When you have a combination of compassionate doctors, nurses, healthcare workers who are giving their time… who are saving lives and improving livelihoods for people,” combined with a team that comes and assess the facilities, then you can have 50 operations in two days in a successful way.

El Salvador will be Operation Walk Maryland’s fifth annual trip to a foreign country. The team previously went to Lima, Peru, and Quito, Ecuador, and twice to Ludhiana, India, where they performed 47 joint replacements in 2011 and 59 in 2012.

One of this year’s patients in Ludhiana, a mother with young children, said she just wanted to be able to pick up her baby. She told her story on video, which was viewed at the fundraiser.

She was bed ridden, unable to walk or use the bathroom independently, and unable to take care of her kids. After the surgery, she said she was able to do all the household work and take care of her kids. Only one knee is problematic, and she cannot put weight on it.

“We keep thinking how can we thank all the people that have come to help,” she said, in Punjabi. “We have nothing to give. They helped us so much.”

A few months after each surgical mission, Harpal Singh and his wife, Maria, a nurse, return to run a follow-up clinic and check-up on their patients. They checked in on 38 of their patients in Ludhiana, in July.

“They were all doing well,” the couple said on the organization’s Web site. “The patients thanked us profusely and asked us about specific members of the team. On these follow up trips we see the dramatic impact the surgeries have made on the patients and their families.”

The original Operation Walk USA was founded in 1994 by Lawrence Dorr, an orthopedic surgeon. Harpal Singh volunteered for a surgical trip with him to El Salvador in 2007, after which he and Maria formed Operation Walk Maryland.

While the selected hospital in the host country begins a search for patients, the American team makes its preparations at home.

Harpal Singh and Gurminder Singh organize the medical team: surgeons, doctors, nurses, implant specialists, technicians and therapists.

Prabhjot Singh, a business expert, finds sponsors, equipment donors, medicine donors, and transportation discounts for people and cargo. Shipping the medical equipment alone costs up to $30,000.

The total cost is about $125,000, Harpal Singh said at the fundraiser. But the actual value of the surgeries is well over a million dollars if they were done in the United States. Each surgery costs about $20,000 here. The difference is that all the medical equipment is donated and all of the medical services are volunteered.

“The respect they have for providers who come from across the world is truly amazing,” Harpal Singh said. “And it really gives me a lot of faith and hope.”

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