Posted by: calloftheandes | February 19, 2010

Minnesota Surgeon’s Specialty Team Helps Latin American Kids to Their Feet

Around a table are people from Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela and the U.S.

But it’s not for a conference. These are friends who’ve come to Quito, Ecuador. And they’re not sharing a meal together either. Laughter, stories and food will come later—after the work is done.

Instead, they’ve gathered around a young patient on the operating table, just as this team of surgical specialists did a year earlier, and the year before that.

“They do it because of their friendship and because it’s interesting,” said Dr. Eckehart Wolff of HCJB Global Hands.

In the operating room at Hospital Vozandes-Quito, he takes a few moments to answer this reporter’s questions before hustling off to assist with another surgery. “They’re all specialists,” he said, “teaching at universities in their countries.”

Different techniques are considered as each team member brings something to the table. “We have learned a lot, especially from the Colombians,” said Wolff, a German physician who has served in Ecuador with his wife, Klaudia, since 1989.

Months before the arrival of each international surgical team, led by 71-year-old surgeon Dr. Jim Gage, Wolff does much of the preparation work. He studies the cases of several dozen Ecuadorian and Peruvian children whose mobility has been severely curtailed by cerebral palsy or other maladies and injuries.

Then in the months after the team leaves, Wolff watches the miracles of mobility occur during his follow-up care of the children. In the most recent trip in January, team members operated on 34 needy children.

The collaborative efforts date back nearly two decades when Gage served as medical director at St. Paul, Minn.-based Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, an independent, non-profit hospital that focuses on pediatric medical treatment and research. In retirement, Gage and his wife, Mary, continue making one or two trips a year to Ecuador.

Gage’s level of specialization once seemed to contradict his deep desire to serve God in missionary medicine, but he conceived of a way to align the two. Early on during an Ecuador visit, he brought in Wolff for the follow-up care of removing casts, devising orthopedics and prescribing physical therapy.

“I have had at least 500 [of these] patients,” Wolff said with a smile. “Some are grown up now, and they don’t need care anymore.” Some patients require repeated work on their limbs at Hospital Vozandes-Quito in consecutive years.

Many of the visiting surgeons return year after year as well. They might not share the same faith in Christ as Wolff and Gage “but they all donate their time, their airfare—they pay it all themselves,” according to Wolff. This helps to push costs down. The patients pay a few thousand dollars for surgeries that would cost tens of thousands in the U.S.

Having a team of physicians work simultaneously on a patient also reduces the surgery time, further reducing costs, as the doctors work to remedy a syndrome of problems affecting a patient’s gait. Their skills help to free children’s limbs of spasticity resulting from a lack of mobility.

As a young physician, Gage had volunteered at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare. “I was volunteering one day a week working with children at Gillette,” he reminisced, “and that became my favorite day of the week.” He subsequently dedicated his career to helping children improve their health, achieve a greater wellbeing and attain a more enjoyable life.


  1. […] Beyond’s Dr. Wally Swanson, who asked him to be a volunteer surgeon at Hospital Vozandes Shell. The program of helping Ecuadorians to walk began with one child. Gage was asked, “Can this boy be helped?” as he studied before […]

  2. […] Other surgeons came from Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Germany and Sweden. “The treatment for CP is not good anywhere in the world—not even in the U.S.,” said Gage, 73, who has been leading surgical teams to Ecuador since 1996. […]

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