Joint project bends reality to provide relief

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AURORA | For more than a decade, Antonio Vargas’s bum left knee made even the most-basic tasks a challenge.

Climbing his stairs meant sitting on his bum and pushing himself up one step at a time — slowly. And just getting around the house meant reaching for crutches.

Chasing any of his 15 grandkids or nine great-grandkids? That was out of the question.

Heading to a baseball diamond and playing a game with his pals wasn’t possible either.

Still, for close to 12 years, like many Americans, Vargas simply dealt with the pain. He was fearful of undergoing surgery, for one.

And while he didn’t know just how much a knee replacement would cost him, he opted not to find out because he knew whatever it cost, he could never afford it.

“I had no idea,” what it might cost, he said through an interpreter.

Last week, the 77-year-old Aurora man got the new left knee that just a few years ago he didn’t dare to dream about.

And he got it for free.

Vargas was one of four patients at Parker Adventist to receive the free joint replacement surgery last week. The surgeries — which are completely free for patients and include everything from implant to the surgeon’s time to follow-up medications — are part of Operation Walk USA 2017, a nationwide campaign that has seen more than 700 patients receive new joints since 2010.

Susan Barnett, manager of orthopedic services at Parker Adventist and the coordinator of the hospital’s Op Walk program, said the annual free surgeries are always an exciting time at the hospital.

Out of pocket for a patient, the knee implant alone costs about $11,000, she said, and patients would also be faced with other costs including paying for the surgeon and other necessary medications.

To qualify, patients need to make more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level and have no insurance or no access to insurance, she said. They also have to be legal permanent residents with a green card.

In Vargas’s case, Barnett said the Metro Community Provider Network — a medical practice that works with low-income people across the metro area — linked him with Parker Adventist for the surgery.

Barnett said seeing people get a surgery that they otherwise couldn’t afford is an emotional time for hospital staff who often tackle a mountain of paperwork and screening to find eligible patients.

“We do a lot of crying,” she said with a smile. “We cry them out the door.”

Vargas said he doesn’t think his knee went bad because of one particular injury, but instead broke down after years of standing on his feet when he worked at a taco restaurant and just general wear and tear.

“It required a lot of standing,” he said of his job.

When he gets home and gets through the required recovery time, Vargas said he is looking forward to being able to get around his house. Beyond that, he said he has two grown children in Mexico he is “anxiously” waiting to visit, as well that brood of grand kids.

In years past, those visit often meant Vargas was sitting still and watching the kids play. This time around, with his brand new left knee healed and ready, he said things will be different.

“I’ll be able to catch up to them,” he said with a laugh.