JACKSONVILLE, Fla., April 1, 2019 – Two light bulbs provide all the light in the operating room as two podiatric surgeons work over a small child. Teams bustle around the minimally appointed room. There is no sophisticated equipment. Just the bare necessities and the skills of the two volunteer surgeons. It is a field hospital but provides better medical care than the child has seen in his short life. As the last stitch is set, the child is bundled off to the recovery room, a donated teddy bear acting as a comforting pillow.
The surgeons briefly sit down to rest as the makeshift operating room is prepped for another small patient. It is a long twelve or more-hour days for the two doctors, but with every surgery, they are changing lives one foot at a time. One of the surgeons is Coastal Podiatry and Wound Care Physician Timothy Syperek, DPM. But he is not in his modern, well-equipped OR in Jacksonville.
Instead, Dr. Syperek is on a medical mission with Operation Footprint, Baja Project in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. This is his fourth year working with Operation Footprint’s self-funded mission to help the youngest citizens of this war torn and poverty-stricken country.
Operation Footprint has coordinated US medical teams and patients in countries like Honduras since 1976. Their volunteer doctors and their teams repair conditions like clubfoot (talipes equinovarus), high-arched feet (pes cavus), severe flat foot deformities, bone infections and tightened tendons. These conditions create hardships for the child and family, limiting the ability to attend school, walk, work, or even lead a normal life. Some clubfoot cases result in severe ulcers and infections that lead to death. It is a straightforward surgery, but in a country where only one percent get medical care, surgery is not an option.
This is where Operation Footprint and the self-funded doctors step in. Before Dr. Syperek leaves, he collects medical supplies and ships antibiotics and other surgical items via a secured container directly to the hospital. Medical supplies are purchased through monetary donations. His sons help out by selling lemonade. All their proceeds are taken to a thrift store where they purchase stuffed animals to go with their father. Each Honduran child is given a stuffed animal for comfort.
Once the team arrives in Tegucigalpa, they host two 10-hour clinics where doctors examine almost 200 patients. From their examinations and what medical information is available, doctors select 41 children for procedures.
“You don’t know what you are going to get or who you are going to see, so that is one of the most exciting parts from my perspective,” said Dr. Syperek.
The surgeries are a challenge, according to Dr. Syperek, because they lack “modern x-ray or fluoroscopy equipment to use during surgery…(which) must be done with great care and focus.” The surgeons rely only on blood tests instead of more sophisticated pre-surgical testing. Dr. Syperek says with the lack of modern equipment, team doctors must “visually see all anatomy to perform tendon lengthening, tendon transfers, bone osteotomies and placement of fixation to hold correction.”
Once patients are selected, the next five days are even longer. He’ll spend 12 to 13 hours a day operating. Often, two teams operate together, repairing both of the patient’s legs and feet at the same time. Once they are finished, the child is turned over to the care of several Honduran doctors who remove pins and replace casts. Within eight weeks, the child is able to use an ankle-foot orthosis brace. With a bit of therapy, the child progresses into shoes and full activity within three to four months.
These surgeries make it possible for the child to walk, go to school and help their families earn a livelihood. Since Operation Footprint teams have been traveling to Honduras for 17 years, they see former patients attend school, graduate, get jobs, start a family, dance at their wedding and be productive in their communities.
What does Dr. Syperek get out of his self-funded mission? He loves being able to change lives for the better. The teamwork and difficult conditions remind him of his army service. He also has a history of working with underserved communities including in Haiti where he set up a diabetic limb salvage clinic in Port Au Prince. His volunteerism lets him live out both his personal philosophy and that of Coastal Podiatry to give back.
Dr. Syperek finds that his volunteer work makes him a better surgeon when he returns to Coastal Podiatry and Wound Care.
“You have to clinically figure it out,” said Dr. Syperek. “You have to see it and view it and fix it. It puts you way back in the mode of analyzing your thinking and when you come back to the states you feel very spoiled.”
Surgical procedures aside, it is not an easy week. The hospital is surrounded by heavily armed drug cartels. The hours are long. He misses his family. But Dr. Syperek knows that each visit changes the lives of those 41 children and their families.
Dr. Syperek has only words of praise for Operation Footprint. “We have no administration fees as everyone pays for their own travel. It’s a well-run organization with a strong mission. All proceeds go directly to the antibiotics, materials for casts, etc. All donations go to the children and that’s the way it should be.” Donations are always welcome and can be made through www.operationfootprint.com.
Coastal Podiatry and Wound Care is supportive of Dr. Syperek serving both the patients in the Jacksonville area and of his service in Honduras. In Jacksonville, he is the premier podiatrist at Coastal Podiatry’s Beach and Orange Park locations, a leading expert in diabetic wound care, as well as the Chief of Podiatry at St. Vincent’s Healthcare. But to his small patients and their families in Honduras, he is a true hero and changes all his patients’ lives for the better.