Back Home: Dr. Vicki Brander in River Forest.

Dr. Victoria Brander has dedicated much of her medical career to transforming the lives of individuals in developing countries who suffer from advanced joint disease. Co-founder of Operation Walk Chicago, Brander, a River Forest resident, recently returned from a weeklong medical mission in Vietnam, where she and a team of volunteers performed more than 40 free hip and knee replacement surgeries. 

Since 2005, the organization has been involved in missions in Nepal, India, Brazil, Ecuador and China, as well as Vietnam, performing surgeries on roughly 1,800 patients. In recognition of her humanitarian medical service, Brander was presented with the “Unsung Heroes of Compassion” award by the Dalai Lama. 

Joint effort: Dr. Brander trains her team on addressing advanced joint disease around the world.

Brander, who grew up in Oak Park and attended Trinity High School, always knew  she wanted to be a physician and remembers, as a child, reading medical textbooks thrown out by a neighbor. Accepted into the six-year Honors Program in Medical Education at Northwestern University, she met an important mentor during her freshman year who inspired her decision to specialize in physical medicine and rehabilitation, a relatively new field at the time. 

“Dr. Henry Betts was a leader in the disability rights movement and a strong advocate for the passage of the American Disabilities Act. He was on the forefront of thinking about patients as more than just diseases. I admired the way that he saw the world as a bigger place than many of the other doctors that I met,” she said.

Following medical school, Brander worked with Dr. David Stulberg, a world-renowned surgeon involved in hip and knee replacement surgeries at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Brander specialized in the care of patients before and after surgery. Brander, who is now a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University, and Stulberg were firm believers in the benefit of a multidisciplinary approach to patient care and developed a patient education class applying this approach to replacement surgeries. They presented their integrated method at conferences around the world. 

Once, while traveling to a conference in a developing country, they looked out the window of their taxi and saw a plethora of people who could barely walk. This experience served as an epiphany for Brander and the spark for Operation Walk Chicago.

“It struck me that while we were in the country to teach doctors to perform replacement surgeries, the bulk of the population who most needed the surgeries would never be able to afford them,” she said.

Operation Walk’s first medical humanitarian mission was in Chengdu, China, at the massive West China Hospital of Sichuan University.

“Frankly, we didn’t have much of a plan. We didn’t do any fundraising or marketing and had no budget. We just figured we’d work it out as we went. We sent letters to our current patients, letting them know that we would be out of the country for a week — and, surprisingly, our patients sent us money and personal notes of encouragement for our future patients in China. We received enough money to do 96 surgeries.”

Operation Walk is focused on training in-country medical professionals in the latest technologies and equipment as much as actually doing the surgeries. Each mission usually involves a team of 40-45 clinicians, including surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, physical therapists and support staff, none of whom are compensated and the majority of whom take vacation time to participate in the trips. Each U.S. clinician is partnered with an in-country counterpart to maximize the educational value of the mission and to foster strong and lasting relationships. Leading medical device companies donate all of the critical supplies, such as joint implants.

“Our sweet spot is to take medical staff in developing countries who know the basics and help them become as skilled as any professional at any hospital in the world. And our goal is to inspire them to provide joint replacement surgeries not for the wealthy but for the poor in their communities,” she said.

Brander and her team view hip and knee replacement surgeries as means for improving the socio-economic environment of communities without social safety nets. In developing countries, many families in a village may depend on one income-generating person. Since much of the available labor is physical, if he or she is incapacitated, the entire village will be impacted. Providing replacement surgery can help put that person back in the workforce.  

Operation Walk’s recent mission in Vietnam coincided with the 50th anniversary of the American withdrawal from Saigon. One of her patients, a man in his 80s, asked her why she came to Vietnam to do this work. 

“I was thinking a lot about the war during our visit. I told him that a lot of Americans suffer from guilt and shame about our country’s actions in Vietnam and that maybe I was working off a bit of that. He reached out and took my hand and said, ‘We can’t forget but we can forgive — and you are forgiven.’ It was amazing,” she said.

Brander recalls a previous visit to Vietnam, when she treated a young man suffering from a disease that fused his hips and knees. He had been unable to leave his bed for two years without the help of a pulley system rigged up by his parents. They carried him into the hospital screening room and, although he was not part of the group initially slated for surgery, his determination swayed the team. They were concerned that his deformities were so extreme that he might bleed to death during surgery or have other complications. He received hip replacement surgeries in 2015 and knee replacement surgeries in 2016. 

“Now Tran Van Tien is walking, he’s married and has two children. He is a public speaker and has an executive coaching business. He would not be alive today without those surgeries,” she said. 

“You can’t always predict that what you do will have a positive outcome. But you do your best. I’m going to continue doing what I can do, from my heart, as best I can.”