By CYNTHIA McCLOUD
For The State Journal
Janice Fast Runner of Bridgeport jokes that she'll soon be living up to her maiden and married names, again.
Runner is one of five people who received a free knee replacement at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown Dec. 6 as part of Operation Walk USA.
Arthritis damaged Runner's knees until working part-time and doing her favorite things — riding her bicycle on the rail-trail and sightseeing with her daughter and three grandsons — were painful if not impossible.
"Last Christmas we went to Washington, D.C.," she remembered. "I had a scooter to start with and the battery goes dead and the handicapped places were still hard to get in and out of so we walked, but I had to keep stopping. They had to wait on me, and it was so painful that I didn't really enjoy myself.
"Each year, it just gets harder and harder and I move slower and slower," Runner told West Virginia University Healthcare. "My dad had osteoarthritis really bad. I always knew I'd end up with it."
Arthritis is the most common cause of disability in the United States, affecting about 48 million Americans.
Dr. Benjamin Frye, an orthopedic surgeon at WVU Healthcare, regularly sees how hip and knee replacements improve the quality of life for people like Runner.
And last year, he saw what a free joint replacement means to someone who needs one but can't afford it.
This year, Frye got WVU School of Medicine faculty involved in Operation Walk USA for the first time. It is a special event that has taken place the first week of December at hospitals across the country since 2011. More than 230 people who do not qualify for government assistance programs and cannot afford surgery on their own are scheduled to receive joint replacements at no cost.
He said the program was built off the international Operation Walk organization, a group providing hip and knee replacements in third world countries while helping train physicians to perform them.
"The thought was that if we are doing this for other countries, there are enough people here at home who need surgery, so Operation Walk USA was born," Frye said. "I was lucky, able to do my training with one of the founders of Operation Walk USA and participated in the program last year and I saw how appreciative the patients and their families were after waiting for years.
"I knew it was something we need to bring to West Virginia and our local community."
WVU orthopedic surgeons performed five hip or knee replacements for free Dec. 6. Six patients were chosen for the free surgeries; one procedure had to be postponed.
"Six is the number of surgeons we have in the Center for Joint Replacement and everyone wanted to be involved," Frye said.
He was joined by WVU Healthcare orthopedic surgeons Dr. David Waxman, Dr. Matthew Dietz, Dr. Adam Klein, Dr. Brock Lindsay and Dr. Barry McDonough. They are among 130 surgeons donating their time and skills to the project, and Ruby Memorial is one of 70 participating U.S. hospitals.
"Now that we've done this one time and everyone is so excited, we plan to do it again next year," Frye said. "We hope to be able to offer it to more patients."
In addition to the surgical procedures themselves, Operation Walk USA provides for all aspects of treatment, including hospitalization and pre- and post-operative care, at no cost to the patients. WVU Pharmacy donated medications, Frye said. Organizations not affiliated with WVU got involved, too.
"We have had a lot of community support," Frye said. "Outpatient physical therapy offices in the towns our patients are from have donated time and services for rehab after surgery. Home Health has donated in-home physical therapy and care. We've had equipment companies donate walkers and canes. The implant manufacturers have donated all the artificial hip and knee joints."
To be selected to receive the free joint replacements, patients had to pass a two-part screening process. First, candidates had to be diagnosed with arthritis in a hip or knee requiring replacement. Then, a financial screening process determined if they had no ability to pay due to lacking insurance and ranking at or below a certain percentage of the federal poverty level.
Waxman replaced 63-year-old Runner's right knee.
Three days after her surgery, Runner said she was feeling better after a good night's sleep at home and looking forward to getting back on her feet.
"I want to keep active," she said. "I don't want to stop. I'm looking forward to just walking again without pain."