From left: Drs. Dheera Ananthakrishnan and David Katz in the operating theatre, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, Blantyre, Malawi.
Every day in the U.S. orthopedic surgeons use basic trauma plates and screws to set and repair fractures in patients’ arms, legs, and other bones. But in the developing world, where this equipment is often not available, a broken arm can mean the difference between a family’s breadwinner being able to work or not. And, because surgeries are infrequent, new doctors can’t be adequately trained. When orthopedic surgeon Dheera Ananthakrishnan ’90 learned from company reps that a surplus of first-generation orthopedic implants sat gathering dust in warehouses, she decided to do something to unite obvious demand with abundant supply.
Having studied mechanical engineering at MIT, the logistical problem appealed to Ananthakrishnan. She joined with orthopedist Jim Kercher and his wife, Heather Kercher, both Georgia Tech-trained engineers, to apply supply chain management principles to the problem. Before long, Orthopaedic Link (OL) was born. It’s a nonprofit that uses an online portal to connect idle, usable orthopedic implant surpluses with the surgeons and organizations in the developing world that need them.
Dr. Nyengo Mkandawire, the only Malawian-born orthopedic surgeon operating in Malawi today, with a patient who had been treated for four months by a traditional healer for a herniated disc in her low back. She was unable to walk when she came to Queens Hospital. Mkandawire performed surgery on her using supplies delivered by Orthopaedic Link, and just before this picture was taken, they were dancing together!
Recipient hospitals and doctors, though, are fully evaluated before they can receive supplies. “We’re trying to find surgeons with a good skill set who are limited mainly by a lack of supplies, in developing countries that are politically stable,” Ananthakrishnan explains. She seeks doctors already providing services for free and who are looking to train other doctors and students. She herself personally visits sites to observe surgeries and understand the needs of a hospital. Ananthakrishnan and her team also follow up with the doctors and patients to gather feedback about the efficacy of the donated equipment.
The government hospital Davao Medical Center (DMC), the only hospital in the Philippines that performs charity spinal surgery, houses the best spine surgeons in the region but they lack the implants needed to treat patients. One year after Ananthakrishnan and her partners conceived of OL, in March 2009, patients at DMC were receiving much-needed spinal implants. One patient, Donald Manurong, a 46-year-old coconut picker and sole supporter of nine, fractured his spine after falling out of a tree and was unable to provide for his family. He could have been crippled for life, but after his surgery he is recovering and will soon be back to work. Since OL’s visit, doctors have performed nine other spinal surgeries—valuable training for the next generation of surgeons. See photos of Orthopaedic Link in the Philippines (on Facebook) and read a blog post by a resident training there. (more…)