GJ surgeon returns from African medical mission

Orthopedic surgeon Mark Luker, second from right, prepares for a procedure in Tanzania, an African nation of more than 46 milion people and 50 trained orthopedists. Luker saw 80 patients during his mission June 6-23. He works at Rocky Mountain Orthopaedic Associates in Grand Junction.

It would never get this bad in the United States.

That’s what Grand Junction orthopedic surgeon Mark Luker thought when he saw some of the more severe cases of bone deformities and injuries in Tanzania during a medical mission trip there June 6–23. The eastern African nation was full of such cases, Luker said, because of poverty, a lack of advanced equipment and just 50 trained orthopedists in the country of 46 million.

Luker, who has worked at Rocky Mountain Orthopaedic Associates for 14 years, saw 80 patients and performed 20 surgeries in Tanzania. He repaired joints ravaged by arthritis, fixed fractures and, when confronted with a man whose ankle had been broken for eight months following a motorcycle accident, was able to bend the foot to a normal angle so the man could walk again.

Although some people he saw are able to function now thanks to his expertise, he was unable to help people whose conditions were too far progressed to reverse with the resources at hand, including a woman who had a large tumor on her thigh that had been pressing against her sciatic nerve for 10 years, causing her foot to point down and back toward her heel.

Not everything could be fixed in a couple weeks. Luker was able to advise Tanzanian orthopedic surgeons on the long-term treatment options available for a boy with a condition called skeletal fluorosis, which caused tiny fractures in the boy’s leg so that his shin was bent at a 90-degree angle. Luker said the boy will likely need to have his leg shortened or stretched back to normal very slowly and carefully.

“That’s stuff that could have been fixed, but it would never get that bad in the United States,” Luker said.

Luker said he had to use his imagination to figure out how to perform some surgeries with limited equipment, but he thrived on making creative decisions. Still, he filled a notebook with ideas for ways to help improve situations in orthopedic treatment areas the next time he’s in Tanzania, such as bringing glasses with lights on them to help surgeons see better in dim operating rooms.

Luker, 46, got his first glimpse of third-world medical care 20 years ago when he spent two months in Sierra Leone as a fourth-year medical student. He decided to return to Africa with Siouxland Tanzania Educational and Medical Ministry (STEMM) after meeting the founder of the Sioux City, Iowa-based medical and orphan care group. He took his 16-year-old daughter, Emmy, with him to Tanzania so she could volunteer with STEMM’s orphanage team.

Luker said the trip was eye-opening for his family and he hopes to inspire other professionals to follow in his footsteps at home or abroad.

“I hope people are encouraged to share their gifts and resources with others,” he said. “For me, the timing was right, the opportunity was there and I’m glad I took the chance.”


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