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Dr. Anthony DiGioia and Operation Walk provide free orthopaedic surgery to patients in Latin America – and here in Pittsburgh
By John Fries

To say that Anthony DiGioia is a man of accomplishments would be an understatement. A graduate of Central Catholic High School, he holds a degree in engineering from the Carnegie Mellon University and a medical degree from Harvard Medical School. For the past 20 years, he's maintained a extremely busy orthopaedic surgery practice; odds are that if you live in the Pittsburgh area, you or someone you know has received a new hip or knee, courtesy of his expertise and skilled hands. As a medical researcher, he's led a number of projects, including one funded by a grant by the National Science Foundation to improve how such surgical procedures are performed. He's planned and presented many educational seminars and conferences for his fellow surgeons. And if you've been fortunate enough to work with him—as I did during the 1990s when were were both at UPMC Shadyside—you know that he's also a genuinely caring physician.

Three years ago, DiGioia, who practices orthopaedic surgery through his group, Renaissance Orthopaedics, at Magee-Womens Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, launched a humanitarian effort called Operation Walk Pittsburgh. The initiative is a satellite program of Los Angeles-based Operation Walk, which was established in 1994 by Lawrence Dorr, MD to provide free hip and knee replacements for patients both in developing countries and the United States who have no access to arthritis treatment. During the past 17 years, Operation Walk teams have traveled to more than 12 countries and provided surgical procedures to, literally, thousands of patients.

Operation Walk Pittsburgh was started by DiGioia in 2008. The team, which includes several doctors, affiliated medical professionals and a number of others under DiGioia's leadership, is now planning its third visit to Latin America. Once there, they will spend several days performing life-changing hip and knee surgical procedures for as many as 50 individuals. They will also provide education in advanced treatments and surgical techniques to orthopaedic surgeons, nurses, physical therapists and other healthcare professionals in the area. The surgeries, combined with medical education, make a lasting contribution to patients and their care.

The entire effort is voluntary. Neither patients nor their families will see bills. Everything—from medical expertise to thousands of dollars in supplies—is donated. Participants donate their vacation time to be a part of this program.

For DiGioia, the idea for Operation Walk Pittsburgh started with a conversation. "I often plan conferences for surgeons," says DiGioia, "and so does Dr. Dorr. We've attended each other's conferences and would always talk about Operation Walk, which he created as a team-based program (there are currently nine teams in the United States and one in Canada). Teams are formed in various parts of the country, and Dorr picks the teams he wants to include in his network."

For DiGioia, the first step in Operation Walk Pittsburgh was to build a team. He recruited Tom Maidens and Janice Harmon, nurses at Magee-Womens Hospital, to serve as the program's logistics coordinators. Volunteers, ranging from medical professionals at various hospitals (not on in Pittsburgh, but as far away as Boston and Florida) to members of his own family, signed on to be part of the program.

As you might expect, an undertaking of this nature is extremely expensive. "Each trip costs about $100,000," says DiGioia, "and that's in addition to between $250,000 and $300,000 in donated medical supplies." Fortunately, AMD3, the charitable medical foundation established in 2003 by DiGioia and managed by Tom Hoffman, became the development arm of the new organization. Once everything was in place, Dorr added Operation Walk Pittsburgh to his growing network.

Operation Walk Pittsburgh is a labor of love for all involved, but, notes DiGioia, it's very time-consuming. "The logistics are incredible," he says. "Between 50 and 55 people take part in each of our trips, and there are about 8,000 pounds of medical supplies shipped eight weeks before the trip.

The group traveled to Antigua, Guatemala in 2009 and 2010—a trip that not only involved a lengthy flight but a two-hour drive into the mountains via old schoolbuses, complete with luggae on the roofs. This year's mission, set for September, will go to Panama City, Panama, and future annual trips are planned.

"When we first arrive, there are between 70 and 80 candidates for surgery waiting along with their family members," says DiGioia. "Four of five operating rooms at a local hospital are made available to us, and early in the week, a huge clinic takes place; we meet with each candidate and evaluate him or her for surgery. Then, we spend the next three days performing surgery and our final three days helping the patients and local staff transition the patients through recovery."

DiGioia finds the experience thoroughly gratifying. "The people of Guatemala are very compassionate and family-focused," he says. "And our work there is very much a team effort. There no no job descriptions." He adds that his wife, Cathy, and their three daughters, Angela, Noelle and Maria, have accompanied him on both trips. "Angela speaks Spanish fluently—so she was especially in demand," he says.

In addition to the medical trips, Operation Walk Pittsburgh has begun providing charity care at home. Last November during Thanksgiving season, three patients were selected to receive free joint replacements at Magee-Womens Hospital. Hospital medical staff members and UPMC waived their fees. The initiative will take place again this November.

DiGioia expresses gratitute and appreciation for all the people who have donated, and continue to donate, their time and skills to the Operation Walk Pittsburgh. In addition to DiGioia, UPMC physicians on the team include include orthopedic surgeons Brian Hamlin, Anton Plakseychuk and Michael Weiss and anesthesiologists Anna Uskova, Nasr Yazigi and Chris Edelmann.

To learn more about Operation Walk Pittsburgh, to volunteer or to provide support, visit www.operationwalkpgh.org

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