A year ago, retired railroad worker Melvin Bluhm was using a walker to get around because his hips were ravaged by arthritic disease, exacerbated by outdoor work during a 25-year career as a derailment and hazardous materials specialist for CSX.
“Time took its toll,” said 57-year-old Bluhm. “The pain was gut-wrenching. To walk 50 feet, it would take me half an hour, 45 minutes.”
Without health insurance, he searched for help. His daughter, who’s a doctor, told him about Operation Walk USA, a volunteer program undertaken annually in December.
Begun in 2010 as a spinoff of an international effort, Operation Walk USA has grown to include 70 hospitals and 120 orthopedic surgeons in 32 states. More than $13 million in pro bono medical care has been provided.
“I put my name on the Web site. I was called the next day,” Bluhm said. He qualified for treatment, which included surgery, hospitalization and pre- and post-operative care.
The surgery, a left hip replacement, was performed Dec. 3, 2013, by Dr. John Repicci, former chief of orthopedic surgery at Kenmore Mercy Hospital. After months of recovery, Bluhm regained mobility – without the walker.
“In spring and summer, I was walking around like there was nothing wrong,” he said. “It was great. It was like brand new.”
In October, Bluhm wrote a letter to the doctor, thanking him and telling him how good he felt. He noted that his right hip had worsened and wondered whether it, too, could be replaced.
Soon afterward, Bluhm was again accepted by Operation Walk USA. Repicci is scheduled to perform a right hip replacement Tuesday morning at Kenmore Mercy.
Among all the applicants for the free treatment, Bluhm was the only one who met all of the requirements, according to a hospital spokeswoman. Beyond financial criteria, applicants must be in relatively good health otherwise, and have a family support system and appropriate location for a successful recovery.
Bluhm is among 120 patients nationwide selected for procedures this year.
“Painful and non-functioning knees and hips are a tremendous hindrance to quality of life. It can make completing even the simplest task excruciatingly painful or impossible,” Repicci said.
“Through Operation Walk USA, we are making it possible for people, who have often lived with their disability for decades, to return to work and other activities with few limitations,” the doctor said.
Bluhm said he’d been using a cane to get around in recent weeks. But the mobility he regained after last year’s surgery probably helped avert what could’ve been another tragedy related to the recent lake-effect snowstorm.
He and his dog, Buster, were able to flee his Orchard Park home Nov. 20, as it was on the verge of collapse.
“I was snow-blowing and I came in to warm up,” he explained. “My dog was acting … freaky.”
“He was running around, looking at the ceiling,” Bluhm said of his almost 5-year-old pit bull.
“The house was cracking while he was in there,” said Bluhm, who then noticed widening gaps in the corners of a room. “I just grabbed him and took off.”
Unable to get his truck out of the driveway, Bluhm said he and Buster were picked up by Hillcrest volunteer firefighters and taken to the fire hall, where they spent a day and a half before going to stay with his son.
When Bluhm returned to his house a few days later, he found the roof had collapsed.
With his house a total loss, Bluhm will recuperate from the surgery at a sister’s house in North Tonawanda. And after insurance matters are settled regarding his Orchard Park home, he said his son, a contractor, will build him a new house on the same site.