Carroll native Cori Mack (center) helped conduct physicial therapy for this patient who had received a hip replacement. To the right stands one of the Vietnamese translators, a volunteer from California. According to Mack, her patient had received a hip replacement on the other side four years earlier from another volunteer organization.
Carroll native Cori Mack (center) helped conduct physicial therapy for this patient who had received a hip replacement. To the right stands one of the Vietnamese translators, a volunteer from California. According to Mack, her patient had received a hip replacement on the other side four years earlier from another volunteer organization.
February 14, 2014

In remote areas of Vietnam, arthritis can literally cripple, while those injured in vehicular accidents stand little to no chance of walking again.

But Vietnam is not unique. In poor regions of countries across the globe, operations many in the U.S. take for granted as routine can be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Often those opportunities are provided by nonprofit medical organizations. Late last fall, 1994 Kuemper High School graduate and Carroll native Cori Mack volunteered her time with such an organization, Operation Walk Chicago, traveling to Nha Trang, Vietnam, from Nov. 9-18 to assist with 86 hip- and knee-replacement surgeries.

According to the organization's website, Operation Walk was founded in 1994 by Los Angeles-based orthopedist Lawrence Dorr. It has chapters operating in 11 states.

Mack, a private physical therapist in Chicago since 2001, learned about the organization through her office's contact with orthopedic and rehabilitation specialists David Stulberg and Victoria Brander, founders of the Chicago branch of Operation Walk.

Mack first applied to participate on a medical trip three years earlier when the organization traveled to Nepal in 2010, but it wasn't until the 2013 trip to Vietnam - Operation Walk Chicago's first to that country - that Mack found a place.

Joining more than 50 other health-care providers, Mack was in-country for eight of the mission's 12 days. She was part of the early team, setting up the materials shipped overseas from the U.S. and assisting in the pre-surgery screening, as well as working in patient recovery.

"We have to bring anything we need to perform surgery or recovery -canes, crutches, walkers, bandages, prostheses, vitamins," she said.

The doctors were given control of three operating rooms and a series of recovery rooms, though the conditions were not comparable to the U.S. It was "nowhere near as modern," Mack described, adding that it was common for eight to 10 patients to share a room, and in some cases for more than one patient to share a bed.

A team of six surgeons and their anesthesiologists, translators and nurses began surgeries as early as 8 a.m., often working 12- to 14-hour shifts to complete more than 10 surgeries per day, Mack said. A day after surgery, the patients were checked by the surgeons and turned over to the physical therapists, who had to essentially reteach them how to walk.

"Some of them hadn't walked in 10 to 20 years," she said, recalling one older gentleman who had been carried in on his wife's back for his consultation. "He started crying when he was told he would receive surgery because he thought his wife had made it up and brought him to the hospital to die."

Another patient, only 28, had been a house painter when he was hit by a motorcycle as he was walking down the road, Mack said. He had broken his hip and elbows, and his wife and a friend had been carrying him around on a stretcher for three months. He had never expected to hold his 2-year-old daughter again.

Mack said the patients were often "beyond belief" that they could learn to stand, walk and move around again. But where rehabilitation in the U.S. often takes three to four months, the physical therapists in Vietnam had to have their patients ready to leave the hospital and return home in five to six days.

"We had to teach them enough to progress and finish rehab and healing on their own, or with their families, because nobody there knew what to do," she said.

Facing that time crunch, the patients' attitudes differed from many in the U.S.

"There was so much trust," Mack recalled. "I walk in, don't speak the language, and say, 'You've never met me, but here's what I need you to do,' and they cooperate immediately."

But they not only cooperated with the physical therapists, they taught and supported each other. A therapist saw each patient about twice a day, but it was not unusual to walk into a room and find an individual working on exercises they'd learned from a fellow patient, and with two to five family members accompanying each patient, the rooms could easily fill up with nearly 50 people, Mack said.

"There was a lot of camaraderie between them," she said. "Sometimes we almost had to tell family members to step away and let patients work on their own because they had so much support."

But the sped-up recovery efforts weren't the most difficult part of the work, Mack said. The number of people who arrived, sometimes walking for hours from miles away, in hope of receiving surgery outnumbered those able to receive surgery nearly three-to-one. During the screening process, the physical therapists had to decide which patients had the social support needed to assist their recovery, and which patients were too severe to help because the team would not be in the country long enough to get them on the road to recovery.

Most of the population travels by motorbike, Mack added, so patients needed to be very stable when they were released.

"We didn't have the time and resources," Mack said. "Figuring out which individuals would be the best candidates was the hardest part."

The medical team members also worked to train their Vietnamese counterparts. The goal of Operation Walk is not only to perform as many surgeries in a week as possible, but to teach the native staff to enable them to provide future care on their own. On successful trips - which Vietnam certainly was, Mack said - the teams return a few years later to encourage the staff and provide further learning opportunities. The U.S. doctors on the Vietnam trip were accompanied by a Nepalese physician who volunteered partly to serve others, but also to practice more with the U.S. surgeons, Mack explained.

According to the Operation Walk website, each trip costs about $200,000. This cost includes the supplies for the medical work and the transportation costs for the volunteers.

The organization sends a team abroad about once a year. In 2012, Chicago teams participated in a national initiative to serve the under-insured here in the U.S. by offering free knee and hip replacements. According to a follow-up letter Mack received, Brazil and the Philippines are both possible locations for future humanitarian missions.

The 38-year-old hopes to be a member of the contingent she is sure will return to Vietnam, but plans to participate again regardless of her destination.

"It's nice to go and help people that really, truly have no other resources," she said. "This was one of the successes. Every patient responded well, was able to get in and out of bed, get dressed, walk around the hospital."

There was also great willingness of the local physicians to learn and work alongside the U.S. doctors, she added.

"If given the opportunity to go back, I would not hesitate," she said.

Mack is the daughter of Dan and Linda Mack of Carroll. Linda is a retired Carroll High School teacher. Dan, also a physical therapist, is proud of his daughter's service work and the strides she has made in her profession.

"She's always been pretty bright and benevolent," he said. "Growing up, she had an honest look at physical therapy and what it's all about, and I'm proud she chose to go into that."