Local doctors provide relief to residents of Yap island

Quelling the fears of patients needing knee surgery were only some of the obstacles.


When Elizabeth stood up straight for the very first time in five years, she exclaimed, "I feel so tall," and then she started to cry tears of joy and appreciation. Never had she imagined this would have been possible.

Elizabeth suffered from severe arthritis in both knees and had been unable to straighten her legs for five years.

So, when Dr. Richard Henderson, an orthopedic surgeon from Walla Walla, told her he would have to replace both of her knees, she immediately said, "Yes!"

But that was not the case for all the patients who came to the Canvasback Missions orthopedic clinic.

"Yap is a very traditional island and our patients viewed the idea of surgery with caution and trepidation. They thought we were going to cut off their knees!" said Jacque Spence, co-founder of Canvasback Missions, a nonprofit organization located in Benicia, Calif.

Spence planned the trip to Yap, a Pacific island of 8,000 people. This is an island where women go bare-breasted and men wear bright blue loin cloths. It is an island of ancient stone money and traditional sailing canoes.

Henderson accepted the invitation and recruited the surgical team who were mostly from Providence St. Mary Medical Center - anesthesiologist, Dr. Robert Smith, registered nurses Cynthia Moramarco and Mary Nelson, surgery technician Janell Penner, and David Baker. Orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Robert Wells of Portland, family practice physician Dr. Julie Bryson of Guam, physical therapist Gregory Garvin of Quilcene, Wash., bio-medical technician Thomas Lengyl of Salem, and Susan Wells of Portland completed the team.

Henderson recruited the team and solicited enough supplies and equipment to fill a 20-foot ocean container. Ameri Cares, Zimmer, Walla Walla General Hospital and Providence St. Mary Medical Center were some of the major contributors. The team used the supplies for surgery and left a great deal for the hospital in Yap.

Quelling the fears of patients needing knee surgery were only some of the obstacles.

"We had a patient who had fractured his wrist three months ago," Henderson said. "The family had decided to use traditional medicine which consisted of massage and herbs. In the three months of treatment, the wrist healed approximately 1 inches out of alignment and the boy was unable to use his hand to write. It was a challenge to reassure the family that surgery and a cast would actually fix the problem."

Henderson's wife, pediatrician Dr. Kay Henderson, was also part of the team. She examined many children who had severe medical problems and no access to care. She also taught a neonatal resuscitation class to the Yapese medical staff.

"I was also privileged to go to four small clinics located in the villages and this was incredible," she said. "I saw many children with very serious illnesses, some of whom I was able to help with recommendations for definitive care and medication adjustments. It renews my realization of how fortunate we are here."

Kay Henderson encountered a broad spectrum of diseases: rheumatic fever, congenital heart disease, malnutrition, developmentally delayed children and severe injuries. There was a young girl who had fallen into a fire and her severely burned arm had not been treated for months.

The Hendersons have returned to Walla Walla but have already signed up to return to Yap in 2012.

For more information on how you can volunteer, contact: www.canvasback.org.

Canvasback.org is a nonprofit organization founded in 1981 to serve remote Pacific islands with needed health care and health education.

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