by Janet Greidanus

Operation Esperanza is a group of healthcare professionals who have been volunteering together for the past 25 years to serve the poor and underprivileged in Ecuador. This time, in 2023, this was done primarily through the provision of free hip replacement surgeries. As well, team members provided dozens of joint injections, countless hours of physiotherapy, nursing care, and education to other health professionals. In previous years, prior to the pandemic, the team was bigger and provided knee surgery and dental care to children in rural schools. As they do all this, Operation Esperanza team members strive to reflect the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. Although there is prayer and biblical-based devotion time before team meals and prayer with patients before surgery, the group sometimes finds inspiration from essays, poems, and other sources.

One evening, a team member read The Starfish Story, adapted from The Star Thrower written by Loren Eiseley and published in 1969. It is good to be reminded of this story because on short term missions such as this one here in Cuenca, Ecuador, one can easily become overwhelmed by the inability to help everyone and wonder how much of a difference one can really make. How much of a difference does it really make to do only 40 joint replacements when there are so many more suffering with pain and disability? At those times, it helps to remember this story. One might not be able to change the entire world, but one can at least change a small part of it, for someone.

When Miriam first came to the clinic twenty years ago, she was a 29-year-old with a big dream.  Suffering from severe, untreated rheumatoid arthritis, she had not walked for four years and needed to be lifted up onto the examining table by her brother. “I want to walk again,” she said. “I want to study again. I want to dance again—to salsa.”

The surgeons, Drs. Thomas and Nelson Greidanus, decided that the best approach for Miriam was to perform a series of surgeries over a two-year period. During the first operation, her right hip and knee were replaced. The following year, her left hip and knee were replaced. The journey through both surgeries was not easy, but Miriam never wavered in her hope to walk and dance again. It wasn’t long before Operation Esperanza team members would witness her standing, walking, singing and swaying those hips at the annual farewell parties the Tomebamba Cuenca Rotary Club held to thank the team for their work in Cuenca. Miriam walked and danced, she got full-time work as a secretary and could support herself and her extended family. In gratitude, Miriam has returned every year to work as a translator for Operation Esperanza, the team that helped make her dream come true. She also got married six years ago.

Miriam, a grateful recipient of Operation Esperanza surgical procedures for a new lease on life. She now gives back as a translator for the team.

Why am I writing about a woman and an orthopaedic case that happened twenty years ago rather than about one of this year’s patients? I write about Miriam because last evening she dropped by the hotel and dropped off a few gifts of Ecuadorean chocolate. On my card she wrote: “Dear Janet, Thank you for the incredible work to help many families…I feel very blessed because I had the chance to be operated by your husband and your son who gave me the opportunity to write a new and very good chapter in my life.” Among the words on my husband’s card she wrote, “I hope you continue coming here in order to help more people. God bless you, your family, and your team. With love, Miriam.”

This is the 25th year for Operation Esperanza. It was during the last mission in January 2020 that we were hearing news about Covid-19 — a new virus that had appeared on the scene in Wuhan, China, and seemed to be quickly spreading around the world. One could say we left Ecuador and returned to Canada just in time. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak a global pandemic. It didn’t take long for international travel and tourism to cease. Airplanes were grounded, hotels closed, and nationwide lockdowns implemented.

As I write this on the morning of February 2, 2023, we are back in Cuenca for the first time since the pandemic was declared. Five days of surgery — 40 hip replacements—have been done. Team members are at the hospital seeing and discharging patients and packing up supplies. It has been so good to be here again and to be able to help more people like Miriam.

Gabriela ready to go home after Gabriela had bilateral hip replacement surgery with Dr. Ben Greidanus on the left.

Gabriela, for example. A single mother in her early forties who had been wheelchair bound for the past 11 months, Gabriela had been unable to work due to pain and disability and faced eviction because she could not pay her rent. She had bilateral hip replacement surgery this week and was walking up and down stairs two days later to the cheers, tears, and applause of team members. The following day she was discharged home.

Angel was bereft after losing his daughter this past year as a result of Covid-19. He was also living with much physical pain and confided he had considered suicide. Up and walking the day after surgery, Angel said he now felt hopeful. He looked forward to riding a bike again.

Man walks again after surgery

Jonas able to walk again after surgery, his smile says it all.

Jonas, in his early forties, came all the way from Brazil to be examined by Operation Esperanza’s surgeons. He had been waiting years for what would have been very expensive (and unaffordable for him) surgery in Brazil. His mother, who lives in Cuenca, heard of Operation Esperanza, and managed to contact local physician, Dr. Manuel Avila. Jonas also received bilateral hip replacement surgery. When Jonas got up and walked, his mother cried. Jonas is very thankful. When I asked one of the patients for permission to share a photo or video, the reply was, “Yes. Tell the whole world!”

These are three of the starfish for whom intervention has made a great and life-changing difference. It is not only the lives of many Ecuadoreans that have been dramatically changed over the years because a group of skilled healthcare providers was willing to go abroad to serve others in need. In doing so, the lives of these volunteers, too, have been dramatically changed.

Tom and Janet Greidanus are EMAS Ecuador Team leaders, and head up Operation Esperanza