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In a rudimentary health clinic in the Democratic Republic of Congo about 18 months ago, Dr. Frank Cobarrubia of Bend met the image of human suffering and strength.
A woman in her early 30s walked into the clinic without a crutch or even much of a limp. Through an interpreter, she told Cobarrubia, a podiatrist, and Dr. Alan Newman, an orthopedic surgeon from Vancouver, Wash., that she broke her leg five years earlier.
The men looked at her X-ray, saw that the bone had healed together and thought she was in much less need than most of the patients lined up to be treated.
Then, Cobarrubia said, he noticed a bandage on her thigh protruding through the slit in her colorful skirt.
He asked the woman to remove the bandage.
"There was a piece of bone sticking out this much," Cobarrubia said, holding his fingers several inches apart. "I said, ‘Oh, my God.' It was necrotic and brown. It was dirty."
The woman had been walking around, cooking, working and sleeping on the dirt floor of a mud hut for five years with a large splinter of bone sticking out the front of her leg. Cobarrubia and Newman performed surgery to remove the bone splinter in hopes the wound would finally heal, as part of a volunteer trip sponsored by Northwest Medical Teams.
"It's a testament to the durability of the human body," Cobarrubia said. "That's why humans still walk the Earth, despite what we do to ourselves or to others."
That story still stands out to Cobarrubia as one of the more amazing moments of his volunteer experiences in Vietnam and Africa.
The 41-year-old podiatrist began turning his vacations into three-week volunteering adventures about five years ago as a way to honor his late wife. The couple had always planned to travel in hopes of helping land-mine victims and, after his wife's death, Cobarrubia sold his practice in Washington state and took the first of three trips to Vietnam.
"I may be going in January to Trinidad and Tobago," Cobarrubia said. "My goal is to do one trip a year."
For the most part, Cobarrubia uses his podiatry skills to treat cases of club foot in the impoverished nations. Club foot, he said, is idiopathic, meaning it has no known cause. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, club foot occurs in approximately one out of every 1,000 births and symptoms in newborns include the foot being turned to the side and sometimes appearing as though the top of the foot is on the bottom.
In the United States, Cobarrubia said, cases of club foot are treated immediately through the use of a cast that is changed frequently and that stretches the tendons and moves the foot into the right position. But in Vietnam and Africa, children born with club foot often are not treated in infancy and end up needing surgery to correct the problem.
"It is more common in Africa. Africa has eight times the frequency of club foot as in North America," Cobarrubia said. "It varies in degree of severity and is treated as such."
Sometimes, he said, it is necessary to lengthen tendons through a surgical procedure. People do not always think of podiatrists as being trained surgeons, Cobarrubia said, but he attended podiatry school in San Francisco and also completed surgical training in Miami.
"I was able to observe as well as assist Dr. Cobarrubia in surgery and was extremely impressed with his knowledge of anatomy, his technical skills and his problem-solving in the midst of surgery," Dr. Newman wrote in a reference letter for Cobarrubia. "This was in the context of operating in a third-world country, faced with language barriers and usually none of the more common tools we use to accomplish foot surgery."
Cobarrubia said he and Newman worked well together in the Congo and they hope to do volunteer work together again in the future. Their last trip was organized by Northwest Medical Teams, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, but Cobarrubia has also worked with Clear Path International and the Vietnam Medical Project.
"Frank is one of my favorite volunteers. He's got a great sense of humor that I think he uses to his advantage," said Tammy Teske, disaster response coordinator for Northwest Medical Teams, explaining that it is rare for a podiatrist to go on one of their projects. "I don't even know if we have ever sent another podiatrist. Frank is very persuasive. He knew his gifts could touch this particular project, and he was right."
On each trip Cobarrubia takes, he said, he spends about three weeks in the nation treating as many patients as possible and pays the expenses out of his own pocket.
"It's a reality check. You look at things with a different perspective," he said. "I know I come back a better surgeon every time."
My time as a volunteer (only in NSW) pales into insignificance compared to the above people. I do not know if the Australian Podiatrists Volunteering in Asia and on the Pacific Islands are getting any recognition which they fully deserve.