It was tough enough for Olabisi Claudius-Cole to be one of just a handful of doctors in Sierra Leone. On top of that, she had to contend with her ailing joints.
Her knees were shot, her hips were bad, and she faced the prospect of life in a wheelchair with no one to take over her clinic in Sierra Leone. The locals there depend on her for much, if not all, of their health care needs.
But Claudius-Cole returned to her homeland Friday with renewed hope after the last of four surgeries in the USA over the past year that gave her artificial hips and knees.
She had the final surgery, for a new left hip, on Aug. 23, after which she recovered at her sister's home in a Chicago suburb.
Usually, four replacement surgeries carry a total price tag close to $100,000. But Claudius-Cole, 49, got the operations for a fraction of the price, thanks to her sister's negotiating skills and Wayne Goldstein, an orthopedic surgeon dubbed "the god of knees."
Goldstein did all four surgeries free and persuaded the other doctors involved and DePuy Orthopaedics (which provided the artificial hips and knees) to waive their fees.
Claudius-Cole's sister, Olufemi Davies, then negotiated with hospital representatives for a 90% discount on hospital fees.
"When I met (Claudius-Cole), I knew she was something special," says Goldstein, who names U2 frontman and philanthropist Bono as an inspiration. "Now she is my proxy, my hand, to save everyone in Sierra Leone.
"To save one person is to save the world," Goldstein says.
At her clinic, Claudius-Cole treats dozens of patients a day, often giving deep discounts for those who cannot afford it. She is a jack-of-all-trades doctor. She can deliver a baby, diagnose a heart attack using just a stethoscope, take out a gallbladder and make house calls all in one day. The clinic employs one junior doctor and a small staff, but they are unable to perform most operations without her.
"You grit your teeth and get on with it," Claudius-Cole says of the pain. "When you're under stress and doing surgery, you don't feel it … afterward you say, 'Ooh, ahh, my hips, my back, my knees.' " She had hip and knee pains because of joint abnormalities that she has had since birth.
She says she could never have gotten the surgeries in Sierra Leone because of the lack of resources and expertise. In 2005, the USA recorded nearly 500,000 knees replacements and nearly 240,000 hip replacements, according to the most recent statistics from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. In Sierra Leone, such surgeries are practically unheard of.
The number of doctors leaving Sierra Leone has increased dramatically in the past few years, and medical resources at clinics are slim — both consequences of a 10-year civil war that ended in 2002. Electricity is spotty, laboratories are not reliable, medicine is hard to get, and medical training is subpar.
Davies, a registered nurse who moved to Evanston, Ill., in 1997, worked tirelessly to get her sister's joints replaced. When she talked to patients and researched surgeons, Goldstein, of Rush North Shore Medical Center in Skokie, Ill., came highly recommended.
"It was an amazing gift, a dream," Davies says. Claudius-Cole says she planned to see patients on the day she returned to Sierra Leone.
Goldstein says he gave her the most technologically advanced replacement knees and hips on the market. They should last her a lifetime, even under her high-stress conditions, he says. When she settles back home, she shouldn't feel any residual pain or need physical therapy, he says.
"When I'm not there (at the clinic), my patients turn around and go home," Claudius-Cole says. "They tell me I just have to touch them for them to get well."