News | 6 months ago

We Can Do That: What I Learned on a Medical Mission Trip to Cuba

Operation Walk Carolinas brought together teams from Carolinas HealthCare System, Novant Health and OrthoCarolina to offer hip and knee replacements free of charge to patients in Cuba in May 2017.

The following article was written by Amy Whisnant, RN, MSN, CNOR, director of perioperative services at Carolinas Medical Center-Mercy We have a lot of resources in our hospitals in this country, and yet sometimes we say that we can’t do things. After spending a week in Cuba – with limited supplies and resources – I am even more grateful for what we do have, and have new perspective on how to better use what we have been given. In May, I was among a group of about 40 doctors and nurses who traveled to Cuba. Our team was part of a national organization with a Charlotte chapter that offers free surgery and treatment to people in developing countries. While the national organization has gone on medical mission trips for years, this was Operation Walk Carolinas' first international field trip. We were going to Cuba to perform hip and knee total joint operations for people who have never had access to this type of care. The gratitude from the Cubans was overwhelming; my week spent there opened my eyes to how lucky we are to have everyday items like disposable gloves and disposable bowls – and how we, as care providers, should never take those things for granted.
Operation Walk Carolinas brought together teams from Carolinas HealthCare System, Novant Health and OrthoCarolina to offer hip and knee replacements free of charge to patients in Cuba in May 2017. Teams from Carolinas HealthCare System, Novant Health and OrthoCarolina performed 53 total joint operations on 46 patients as part of the Operation Walk Carolinas during a weeklong trip to Cuba in May 2017.

Grateful Patients, Hardworking Staff

I was so touched by the patients, who would reach out when they saw us, hug us and give us kisses. Over the course of a week, our team – with representation from Carolinas HealthCare System, Novant Health and OrthoCarolina – performed 53 total joint operations on about 46 patients. Bryan Springer, MD, who founded Operation Walk Carolinas and is a hip and knee surgeon with OrthoCarolina, had to sit down with the patients who we weren’t able to treat because others had more pressing needs, and even they were very kind, thanking us for what we were doing.
Operation Walk Carolinas founder Bryan Singer, MD (left), and Paul Coleman, PA, with a patient in Cuba. Operation Walk Carolinas founder Bryan Singer, MD (left), and Paul Coleman, PA, with a patient in Cuba.
In addition to performing surgeries, our team also took the time to teach Cuban nurses and doctors. I’m very passionate about teaching, and we trained nearly 25 doctors, nurses and physical therapists. Their team was striving so hard to help and learn. For example, opening supplies correctly in an operating room reduces errors, so I spent time teaching nurses how to do this in the most efficient, effective way. By the third day, the nurse who had been shadowing me was opening the supplies the way I’d taught her. It was amazing to see how we were making a positive impact.
In addition to performing surgeries, the Operation Walk Carolinas team also took the time to teach Cuban nurses and doctors. In addition to performing surgeries, the Operation Walk Carolinas team also took the time to teach Cuban nurses and doctors.

Recognizing Our Resources

Carolinas HealthCare System donated supplies to our trip, making up about 80 percent of our supplies, as did Novant. Sometimes physicians would ask for a tool or supply that’s common in operating rooms at home, and I’d have to try to find a substitute in Cuba, because there was so much at stake; if I didn’t find an alternative, the patient couldn’t receive care. We were reaching for cement mixers, implant containers – we made use of everything. It was wild what we could do. Going on this trip will make me think twice before saying “we can’t do that.” I’ll be more aware of the amount of resources we use, and I’ll value the teams you can pull together to make things happen, even when means are limited.
The team of 40 surgeons, internists, physical therapists, nurses and scrub techs often had to improvise tools and supplies as many of the facilities in Cuba lacked medical resources. The team of 40 surgeons, internists, physical therapists, nurses and scrub techs often had to improvise tools and supplies as many of the facilities in Cuba lacked medical resources.