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Local doctors give gift of walking (PHOTOS)

Friday - 12/7/2012, 5:41am  ET

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Operation Walk Virginia volunteers have traveled to Guatemala, Ecuador and Nicaragua to perform joint replacement surgeries helping patients in underserved communities. The volutneer team of doctors is also helping local patients who can't afford the complex surgeries (Courtesy of Operation Walk)
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Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - It may be the ultimate holiday gift.

Ten patients with no insurance and no way to pay are getting free knee or hip replacement surgeries this weekend at Inova Mt. Vernon Hospital thanks to Operation Walk Virginia.

Dr. Gerard Engh, the medical director of the Joint Replacement Program at Inova Mt. Vernon, is the driving force behind the effort.

"In many ways, we will actually say to our patients, 'Well, this is our Christmas present to you, to give you the ability to walk again without pain'," says Engh.

He founded Operation Walk Virginia in 2006, and enlisted local surgeons and support staff to join him on Operation Walk missions to Nicaragua, Ecuador and - most recently - Guatemala.

"We recognized that going to third world countries was a really good thing to do," says Engh, "but also realized that there were an awful lot of people in this country that either didn't have health insurance or couldn't independently afford this type of surgery."

In 2010, Operation Walk Virginia began its work on the homefront, offering free joint replacement surgeries and related services each year to a group of local residents in need.

Some are referred by local free clinics, while other potential patients learn by word of mouth. Cindy Short of Manassas, one of the ten chosen for 2012, found out about it online.

"I was getting desperate," she says. "And I was Googling any kind of trial or anything, and that is when I found Operation Walk on the Internet."

Short's two knees are so damaged there is no cartilage left and she walks in constant pain. But she has no medical insurance, and has a tough time coming up with a couple hundred dollars for a doctor visit and an X-ray, let alone the $25,000 to $50,000 bill for joint replacement surgery.

She says getting approved for treatment by Operation Walk "is like winning the lottery." She says it is a gift for her entire family, and refers to the help as "a miracle."

Everything is donated - from the doctor's time and surgical talent, to the hospital stay, medications, implants and even physical therapy.

As many as four operating rooms at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital will be constantly in use Saturday with staff working on their weekend to perform one delicate set of surgery after another.

When asked why they do it, Engh told WTOP the doctors get a certain joy out of helping others. He says the feedback is so strong and so positive, "that once you do it, you want to keep on doing it."

Watch a video about Operation Walk Virginia:

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)