Cork doctors carry out free hip and knee replacements on mercy missions

A team of Irish medics are changing the lives of Vietnamese people by carrying out free hip and knee replacements in Hanoi. COLETTE SHERIDAN spoke to one of the Cork people involved in the venture, and found out how the coronavirus is hindering their work
Cork doctors carry out free hip and knee replacements on mercy missions
Surgeon David M Mulcahy (second left, beside a patient) with his surgical team in Hanoi, Vietnam. Deirdre Frost, sitting next to him, was a nurse in the South Infirmary. Laoise at the back was a nurse from Castlebar and the other surgeon was Mark Murnahan from the north of Ireland.

A MERCY mission to Hanoi in Vietnam by Irish medics sees them carry out hip and knee replacements free of charge on Vietnamese people who have no access to affordable health care.

Operation Walk Ireland, which includes medical experts from Cork, has been going for three years. It comprises a group of orthopaedic surgeons, anaesthetists, physiotherapists and nurses.

So far, they have carried out 230 hip and knee replacements in Hanoi and the team were due to return there on March 13. However, the coronavirus outbreak has forced them to postpone that to a later date.

The charitable intervention was started by American medical groups about 20 years ago.

Consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the Bon Secours in Cork, David M Mulcahy, says a colleague in Castlebar became involved with the American operation five years ago. He went on to take about 20 medics to Hanoi.

David became involved. In 2017, about 70 medics from all over Ireland travelled to Hanoi. They have been going ever since, bringing relief from pain to patients, with implants provided by companies here, free of charge.

The medics pay for their flights and a week-long stay in a local three-star hotel. Fund-raising events are held to help with some of the medical costs and transporting equipment.

A patient in the hospital in Hanoi, Vietnam, is grateful for her treatment.
A patient in the hospital in Hanoi, Vietnam, is grateful for her treatment.

Among the team from Cork are nurses Derval Slattery and Margaret Sheehan, as well as anaesthetists, John Owens and Denise McCarthy.

David says most of the patients he and his colleagues treat are young and severely disabled by their conditions. Many are unable to work and support their families.

“We see a lot of people in their twenties, thirties, forties and early fifties. Life expectancy in Vietnam is shorter than here.

“A lot of these people have congenital hip dislocation. We treated one guy a couple of years ago who had three or four different fractures at one stage. He was limping and in pain. We see a lot of that kind of thing.

“If people can’t pay, they don’t get treatment.”

The first year David worked in Hanoi, the operating theatres in the military base hospital “were the standard of theatres here in the 1950s,” he says.

“The wards were crowded and very old-fashioned. The patients’ relatives pretty much had to care for them in hospital. They brought them food and they slept on the stairs.”

There was no air conditioning in the hospital, making work there very uncomfortable.

However, a new, much-improved hospital opened in Hanoi last year. “It’s a fine hospital that is government funded,” says David. “I don’t think there’s any free health care there. A lot of the people we see are very poor.

“One guy we met last year works as a rice farmer and earns only $200 a year.

“Patients come to us from all over Vietnam, sometimes travelling hundreds of miles.”

A team of approximately 90 medics from Ireland had been due to go to Hanoi this month, but David said: “We took a decision to defer our planned trip tdue to concerns about the coronavirus.

Some of the patients in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Some of the patients in Hanoi, Vietnam.

“This was unfortunate but unavoidable in the current situation. We are going to try and see if we can do this trip later in the year rather than defer for a full year but things are undecided at the moment.”

While out there, the teams aim to do 120 hips and knee replacements in a week. “We work ten hour days, running five theatres,” says David.

“On the first day, we do an assessment on the group of patients that the hospital lines up for us. The operations are carried out over five days then there’s a day spent tidying up.

“We’re in the hospital at 7am. We run two nursing shifts.”

No doubt, David and the other volunteers are seen as angels of mercy by the patients.

Last year, several of the patients from the previous year came back to the hospital to show their gratitude for the medical care they received.

“They spent a whole week in the hospital, helping with the new patients being operated on,” says David. “They very much have a giving mentality.”

Bringing relief to impoverished medically neglected people is very satisfying work, says David. “A lot of them are in desperate need and in desperate pain with crippling arthritis. Even to see them a couple of days after their operations, they’re totally different people.”

But the care that Operation Walk Ireland brings to Hanoi “is a drop in the ocean”.

“We’re only there for a week,” says David. “We try to educate the doctors and nurses, encouraging them to come to the operating theatres with us. Three years ago, they weren’t doing any knee replacements in Hanoi, whereas now they are doing some. They’re doing more hip replacements than they were three years ago.”

David says once he and the team from Ireland carry out the operations, “we get people up very quickly”.

He adds: “We would operate in the morning and the physiotherapists would have the patients out of the bed three or four hours later.

“Probably the biggest job the physiotherapist has is holding the patients back. They have a real get-up-and-go mentality. Sometimes, we have to tell them to slow down. Knees are slower to recover from than hips and a lot more physio is needed.”

Sometimes, patients seeking treatment are turned down as they may not be medically fit or the necessary implant isn’t available.

“There was a woman two years ago who had a congenital hip replacement. We didn’t have the implant needed.

“So, last year, we brought back some special equipment and we were able to operate on her. She was thrilled. She had waited 17 years for a hip replacement.”

Are the Vietnamese demanding a better health service.

“I don’t think so. They’ve grown up with it. There’s an acceptance of it,” says David. “But Vietnam isn’t alone in having a poor health system. In America, a first world country, if you haven’t got health insurance, you don’t access treatment.”

To donate money to this cause, there is an Operation Walk Ireland Facebook page or donations can be made via David M Mulcahy’s office at the Bons Secour.

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