Schmitt picked up a group of women celebrating a birthday after the bars had closed. The women wanted to go somewhere with hot food, but soon learned from Schmitt that the only place open was Burger King. Unsatisfied with the fast-food option, the girls gratefully accepted a bag of Cheetos that Schmitt offered them from his personal stash. When the group arrived at their hotel, Schmitt stepped out to open the door and help the group out of the cab. The women immediately noticed Schmitt's cane and asked him what had happened. "I told them I had no cartilage in my right hip and their eyes lit up," said Schmitt, "they said they had someone I needed to call and that I would be a perfect candidate for a hip replacement."
Less than 30 days later, thanks to the encounter Schmitt has dubbed "The Cheeto Connection," he was at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center receiving a free hip replacement procedure thanks to Operation Walk Utah, a nonprofit the women in his taxi volunteer with.
On Dec. 1, Schmidt and seven other patients underwent surgeries to replace hips and knees and help cure debilitating joint problems, part of a biannual event called Operation Walk USA. The Utah chapter of the organization provided the operations completely free thanks to small donations from individuals and significant in-kind donations from local businesses: The Salt Lake Regional Medical Center donated facilities; Hofmann Arthritis Institute (HAI) comprised of orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Aaron Hofmann, Trevor Magee and Jeremy McCandless performed the surgeries; institute staff donated their time to assist with the surgeries; Total Joint Orthopedics (Dr. Hofmann is on the Board of Directors) donated hip replacements, and Zimmer donated knee replacements. Nationally, more than 200 individuals in 29 states received replacements through Operation Walk USA.
"It was truly a miracle in every sense of the word," said Schmitt.
According to a press release from Operation Walk, Arthritic disease is the most common cause of disability in the U.S.: more than 21 percent of the adult population suffers from the disease. "They are living in constant pain," Mandi Trowbridge a Park City local and spokesperson for the organization, said of patients suffering from severe arthritis "they can't sit, they can't stand. They can't carry their children or grandchildren.
The impact that a replacement knee or hip has on a patient's life is significant: Trowbridge says, "while these patients are not dying, they aren't really living you are enabling them to get back to a functioning life."
Six years ago, Schmitt was working as a waiter in Park City and was experiencing terrible back pain. After receiving an x-ray, Schmitt discovered that he had no cartilage in his right hip which was causing his spine to rub against his sciatic nerve (formed by the nerve roots coming out of the spinal cord into the lower back, according to WebMD). Eventually the pain became so great that Schmitt was forced to quit his job as a waiter (his profession for more than 15 years) and eventually began driving a cab for his own company, A Taxi. "I was limited to basically just staying in my apartment or driving a cab," said Schmitt, "I could never ski or play golf again, the two sports I love best. I couldn't even go for a short walk."
Schmitt found out he had qualified for a free hip replacement from Operation Walk Utah shortly after the night he shared his Cheetos with his late-night riders. "I was in shock," he said, "I knew this was something I could have never been able to save up enough to do for myself. I just turned 61, I don't have any medical benefits and Medicare doesn't kick in until 65. There was no way I was going to be able to do it."
Like Schmitt, many of those affected by joint disease cannot afford the necessary hip and knee replacements to alleviate their excruciating pain. Trowbridge says that even with private insurance, replacements can be about $20,000. To receive a replacement from Operation Walk, patients are selected based on the severity of the condition, the impact that a replacement would have on the patient's life, the patient's inability to get treatment otherwise, and all-around health (patients must be healthy enough to withstand the surgery). None of the beneficiaries have health insurance.
The Utah Chapter of Operation Walk was founded by Hofmann. Park City residents may recognize Hofmann's name from his local business endeavors: he is the owner of 350 Main and the Spur. According to Trowbridge, Hofmann first became involved with Operation Walk when he went on an international Operation Walk trip with the national organization's founder, Dr. Lawrence Dorr. The trip inspired him to start a Utah chapter of the organization which has been operating for about five years. In addition to biannual Operation walk USA events, Operation Walk Utah also provides surgeries overseas in San Salvador, El Salvador.
Dr. Hofmann and other volunteers most recently traveled to El Salvador in October. Trowbridge and other volunteers had visited the country in July to assess the need and resources. The organization works closely with the country's Director of Health as well as local medical providers. The organization's representatives proposed 40 surgeries, but were convinced to bump the number to 50. However, when Dr. Hofmann and his team arrived in October to begin scanning patients, hundreds and hundreds of people showed up. Reluctant to turn so many away, the team worked tirelessly (grateful for backup supplies that had been shipped from the U.S.) and in the end performed 100 of the transformative operations.
Operation Walk Utah is supported by a virtual army of volunteers. Currently, the local chapter runs with a 100 percent volunteer staff and is working to ramp up fundraising efforts in order to provide more surgeries for more people in addition to increasing advocacy and outreach. The organization hopes to raise more money to provide more free surgeries to those in need locally and abroad, as well as improve international education programs which will create a more sustainable impact overseas.
Schmitt said he is impressed with the dedication of the volunteers that worked with him, "they are all so devoted to making sure people walk again. They love to see the end results of all these people who basically had no way of getting around," he said. Each day since his surgery, he feels a little better, a little more mobile. Thanks to Operation Walk, Schmitt is expected to be back on his feet just in time for Christmas.
For more information, visit www.operationwalkutah.org