Tucson medical mission team humbled, grateful to serve vulnerable patients in Ecuador

EcuadorTeamAn effort founded to serve the “poorest of the poor” in Ecuador was a source of inspiration for a group of surgeons and other medical professionals who went on a medical mission trip there last month.

The team, organized through the non-profit Because We Care Foundation and comprised of members who specialize in total knee replacements, made the trip to Quito, Ecuador, to perform surgery on 16 indigent patients who otherwise would be unable to afford treatment.

Dr. Luis Esparza, an anesthesiologist with Old Pueblo Anesthesia, participated in the 2014 mission, and jumped at the chance to return in 2015. “Both were incredible experiences,” said Dr. Esparza, who was recruited by Dr. Luis Piedrahita, an orthopaedic surgeon who has been doing charitable work in Ecuador for more than a dozen years.

While knee replacements are a common surgery in the United States, they are life-altering for patients in Ecuador, where two-thirds of its citizens lack the means to pay for health services, Dr. Esparza said.

One patient, a 70-year-old former soccer player, was unable to walk because of increasing arthritis. “Although his soccer playing days are over, he was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to walk once again without pain,” Dr. Esparza recounted.

Another patient was a 39-year-old woman with severely compromised hands, feet, hips and knees as a result of rheumatoid arthritis. She had been rejected the previous year due to uncontrolled inflammation of her joints, but was  stable enough to undergo operation this year. They expect to operate on her other knee next year.

One of the most memorable patients was a 65-year-old woman with severe rheumatoid arthritis whose husband had been transporting and caring for her as her condition deteriorated. The operation, Dr. Esparza said, offered the possibility of improved mobility for her and relief for her husband.  After her procedure, her husband shared the couple’s background and financial struggles with the team in a brief but powerful speech. “By the time he was done, most of the team was speechless, and the others were in tears. It was the perfect end to a long day, and a memory I will carry with me forever.

“As a rule, the members of the medical team were awed by the gratitude, humility, and resilience of the patients we met,” Dr. Esparza said. “Overall, I feel that the team benefited from this experience as much as the patients upon whom we operated. Every time I go on a mission, I am awed by the impact of what, to us, is a routine practice, and I return with a renewed appreciation for what we have here and for what the practice of medicine can be.”

Tucson Medical Center donated medical supplies to support the mission. Other contributors to the trip included partners at Old Pueblo Anesthesiology, who helped offset travel costs for several members of the team, and Stryker Inc., which donated the implants.

For more information about the Foundation, please visit http://www.becausewecarefoundation.org/#

Medical team mission members, aside from Dr. Esparza, included orthopaedic surgeons Drs. Piedrahita, Russell Cohen, and Murray Robertson; Internists Drs. Juan Pena and Carina Carillo; Physical Therapist Gloria Valles; Nurse Practitioner Melanie Daniels; Surgical scrubs Roman Canelo and Angela Pendergast; student Sheridan Cohen; translators Belen and Mariana Caballero; and Stryker representatives Tom Damore and Kevin Crawley.

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