Welcome Help for Needy Knees

PHOTO: Susan Murray will get two knee replacements from Operation Walk USA.Courtesy Susan Murray
Susan Murray will get two knee replacements from Operation Walk USA.

Susan Murray is getting a new set of knees this holiday, thanks to a charitable organization that pairs up orthopedic surgeons with low-income patients.

Murray, a 51-year-old mother of two, has lived with a degenerative joint disease since her early twenties that has gradually robbed her of the ability to do even basic, everyday tasks.

"I can't stand or walk for more than a few minutes without severe pain in my knees," she said.

Murray's health has also been a casualty of the economy. The Freehold, N.J., resident has lost three jobs in the last few years due to downsizing. Without employment, she's had no health insurance and no way to afford treatment for her troubled joints.

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Next week, Dr. Giles R. Scuderi will do total knee replacements on both of Murray's knees at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. If all goes well, she should be home for her birthday at the end of the week and pain-free by the new year.

Best of all, Murray's surgery won't cost her anything, thanks to the medical charity, Operation Walk USA. Currently in its third year, OWUSA provides free joint replacement surgery to patients who don't qualify for government assistance and have no insurance.

More than 130 volunteer orthopedic surgeons and 70 participating hospitals in 32 states will conduct joint replacement surgeries like Murray's on behalf of the charity from Dec. 2 to Dec. 7. But Scuderi stressed that getting patients back on their feet takes a team approach.

Nurses, anesthesiologists and other medical professionals also donate their time. Six major joint replacement manufacturers donate the hardware. The charity covers additional costs for medication and physical therapy.

Scuderi said he thinks it's particularly poignant that the surgeries take place during the holidays.

"It brings terrific unity at a time of the year when we are giving thanks," he said. "Everyone on the team is involved and is looking to give back."

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In addition to Murray, Scuderi will perform at least one other OWUSA operation this year. Overall, OWUSA will organize 230 surgeries, adding to the 300 or so that have been done in previous years. Dr. Adolph V. Lombardi, Jr., one of the six surgeons who put up his own money to fund the charity, said he hopes they will be able to up the total to 500 next year.

"There are over one million joint replacement surgeries every year but a large number of people can't afford it," he said. "We feel the need is significant and we want to get as many people back on their feet as possible."

Lombardi and five other surgeons put up their own money to start the charity. Lombardi said he got the idea from participating in Operation Walk, a group that has donated more than 6,000 surgeries to patients in Third World countries. He realized there were people in his own backyard who could benefit from the same kind of help.

"It's just amazing when as a physician you see people who come through your door who can't afford an operation," he said. "I've always done the operation for free but then the rest of it wasn't, so we felt there needed to be a coordinated, organized effort to help people."

The program was only one day a year to start and has expanded to a week, Lombardi said, noting more than 500 people apply for help each year. Beyond the no-cost surgeries the group performs, Lombardi said they help another 25 or so qualify for Medicare and other government assistance to help pay for the cost of orthopedic care.

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Arthritic disease is the most common cause of disability in the U.S., affecting approximately 48 million Americans. The debilitating pain of end-stage hip or knee degenerative disease often makes working, or doing simple daily tasks, excruciatingly painful or impossible.

Joint replacement surgeries are an effective way to treat arthritic conditions but Lombardi said a single knee replacement can cost upwards of $50,000. Even for those who have insurance, the out-of-pocket costs can put surgery out of financial reach.

Murray found her way to OWUSA through a Facebook campaign started by her daughter Kelly, who started asking for ideas and donations to help her mom cover medical expenses for her knees.

"She's getting married in January 2015 and she really wants me to be able to dance at her wedding," Murray said.

A friend saw the post and put her in touch with Scuderi. After an interview and complete medical exam, Murray said she was overjoyed to learn she'd be getting new knees.

"I feel this is a miracle and Dr. Scuderi is an angel. This has completely changed my life," Murray said. "I'll be dancing at my daughter's wedding."