Local nurse gives gift of mobility to patients in third world countries

Published 9:34 am Wednesday, March 29, 2023

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LUTCHER — Lutcher native Tiffany McKennon, a nurse at St. James Parish Hospital, has helped give the gift of mobility to patients around the globe.

Since 2011, she’s attended six trips with Operation Walk, a humanitarian organization that provides life-altering joint replacement and bilateral knee surgeries to patients in need at no cost.

McKennon’s most recent trip with Operation Walk this past fall was the first since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the condensed trip to Panama, it was important to have an experienced medical team on staff to serve 22 patients in a three-day span. Working with a fraction of staff that would typically be involved in surgery in a hospital setting, the Operation Walk volunteers arrived in Panama on a Wednesday, completed five surgeries on Thursday, another 15 on Friday, and five more on Saturday before flying out on Sunday.

McKennon said all of the patients had great outcomes, and she was especially touched by the stories of those who persevered through pain for years. One wheelchair-bound patient told the volunteers how she used to be a dancer, and it was a special moment for everyone to see her spring to her feet after her surgery. Another patient expressed how he had been waiting for seven years to get his bilateral knee surgery done, and he was on the list for Operation Walk right when the pandemic shut down global travel and cancelled the 2020 trip. His years of waiting were worthwhile as he finally experienced relief.

The first trip McKennon took with Operation Walk was in 2011. She grew up in Lutcher but spent 18 years in Denver, Colorado, where she worked on a joint replacement unit specializing in knees and hips.

“While I was working on the joint replacement floor, they were looking for volunteers to go on a trip. I had just gone through a major life event, becoming a single mother of two kids, and was looking for purpose and meaning. I’d always wanted to go on some type of mission trip, so when the opportunity presented itself, I thought it would be perfect,” McKennon said.

That year’s trip to Guatemala was the first time McKennon traveled out of the country, and the experience was eye-opening.

“I came back from the trip realizing nursing is completely different in another country. The people were different. They were so thankful of us and appreciative. They don’t have access to pain medicine, steroids and antibiotics like we do. They just live with the pain. These people come from nothing and they are still the happiest people, and it just made me realize that you don’t have all of this material stuff to be happy,” McKennon said. “It just restored a spirit in me and reminded me of why I became a nurse.”

In addition to Guatemala and Panama, McKennon has also cared for patients in Honduras and Cancun.

In Honduras, she cared for a young woman in her 20s who suffered from horrible rheumatoid arthritis and lived a very sheltered life as a result. A few years after the young woman received bilateral hips, she volunteered alongside Operation Walk during a return trip to Honduras. Exuding a newfound confidence, she shared how she was now engaged to be married.

Another memorable experience was heading back from a former patient who has gotten married and had children since having surgery years ago.

“For a lot of them, their disease is so debilitating that they can’t work or get out of the house, and this surgery totally changes their life,” McKennon said.

After moving back to Lutcher a year and a half ago, McKennon was disappointed that her days of Operation Walk mission trips with the Denver team were seemingly over. That was until she received a call from Denver in late September 2022 that experienced nurses were needed for the Panama trip.

Most trips involve 60 to 70 joint replacements. Since the recent trip to Panama was conducted in a shortened format, arrangements were made to help everything run as quickly and efficiently as possible. Medical equipment was boarded on the flight in the volunteers’ bags to avoid having to wait an extra day for cargo to arrive. Another strategy used to streamline the process involved sending patient information over to Denver ahead of time to allow doctors time to review X-rays and medical history prior to the three intensive days of surgeries.

McKennon continues to keep in contact with Operation Walk’s Denver team and advocates for fundraising necessary to transport 8,000 pounds of supplies including prosthetics and surgical equipment overseas.

According to Operation Walk, a typical trip to South or Central America totals nearly $150,000, totally supported through volunteers and donations. Contributions can be directed to www.operationwalkdenver.org/take-action.html