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Orthopedic Surgeon Changes Lives During Medical Mission to Guatemala


By Michelle Brubaker   |   December 05, 2013

A “game changer” is what Francis Gonzales, MD, orthopedic surgeon at UC San Diego Health, called his recent medical mission to Guatemala where he and a team of nurses and surgeons from across the United States performed 50 hip and knee replacements on patients in dire need of care.

The effort was coordinated through Operation Walk, a non-profit, volunteer medical services organization that provides free surgical treatment for patients in developing countries who have no access to life-improving care for arthritis or other debilitating bone and joint conditions.


Francis Gonzales 
“This was my first time being part of this ambitious effort, and it brought new perspective to all of us involved. Some patients traveled for days to be seen by a physician. There was a line of people wrapped around the outside of the building,” said Gonzales, who specializes in adult joint reconstruction.

Though hundreds of potential patients arrived for assessments, 50 of the most critical cases were chosen to undergo joint replacement surgery. The patients ranged from middle-aged mothers to grandfathers in their eighties.

The medical team worked around-the-clock for three days in four operating rooms using devices and instruments that had been donated as part of the overseas mission.


Guatemala medical mission 
Guatemala medical mission 
“It was eye-opening to see that these patients do not have access to the medical advancements and technology that we have in the United States,” said Gonzales. “Farming was the livelihood for many of the patients we treated, so they had learned how to live with their debilitating joint deformities and severe pain for the sake of their families.”


A main goal of Operation Walk is to educate the orthopedic surgeons, nurses, physical therapists and other healthcare professionals working in the developing country on the most advanced treatments and surgical techniques for diseases of the hip and knee joints. This is done in conjunction with surgeries to help create a lasting contribution to patient care in the countries visited.

Gonzales was able to represent UC San Diego Health and bring his expertise in joint replacement techniques to the operating rooms in Guatemala, improving patient recovery times and outcomes. He also brought two chief orthopedic residents from UC San Diego Health with him on the medical mission.

“This trip was a wonderful learning experience. It exposed the residents to global health and taught them the various techniques used on complicated cases,” said Gonzales. “This experience also allowed us to collaborate with experts in our field who we wouldn’t normally be working side-by-side with. It transformed all of our lives both professionally and personally.” 

At the end of the mission, all the patients sat in a room and stood up one-by-one to thank the surgical team that stood before them.

“It was so touching and emotional to hear each patient talk about how the surgery will improve their lives,” said Gonzales. “They spoke from the heart, and it made our team incredibly proud to be part of something so meaningful.”

Related Specialties


Joint Care