Former figure skater champion headed on a medical mission to Nepal

As a figure skater, Debra “Debi” Thomas captured national and international titles and headlines for her feats. Her precision, athleticism and talent made her beloved in the world of figure skating and by young girls who wanted to emulate her.

As a figure skater, Debra “Debi” Thomas captured national and international titles and headlines for her feats. Her precision, athleticism and talent made her beloved in the world of figure skating and by young girls who wanted to emulate her. It was hard work, Thomas said in an interview with the Defender. But there was just as much going on behind the scenes of Thomas’ life as there was front and center on the world athletic stage that she dominated in the 1980s. Thomas was a freshman engineering student at Stanford University when she won national and world figure skating championships in 1986 and was named athlete of the year. She was the first Black woman to win a Winter Olympics medal, picking up a bronze in the 1988 Games. It didn’t faze her at the time, she said. She just wanted to excel at her sport. At the same time that she was leaping into the history books, she was also aspiring towards a career in medicine. Now, decades later, she has hung up her skates, but she hopes the fame from her heyday carry forward to her current work as an orthopedic surgeon and the mission work she will soon undertake. Thomas is now one of a few Black orthopedic surgeons, among an even fewer number of fellowship-trained female ones and will be the first Black doctor of her kind to join Women Orthopaedist Global Outreach in its mission to Katmandu, Nepal in Asia Sept. 24. WOGO, a non-profit volunteer medical service organization headed by five specially trained female orthopedic surgeons, will provide free hip and joint replacement surgeries to a select group of poor and impoverished Nepalese women who suffer from arthritis. Dozens of women in their mid-60s will receive the prosthetics. “I’m very excited to go because…I know how my patients here in the states were terribly crippled by their arthritis,” Thomas told the Defender, pointing out how life-changing it was for her former patients to have their range of motion and functionality back. Thomas said she looks forward to bringing such relief to the Nepalese women. “It’s one of the poorest countries,” she said, explaining why WOGO chose Nepal for its inaugural mission. “The men rely on the women there a lot for work and hard labor-type work. And if you’re crippled by arthritis, it sort of shuts down the whole social scene.” According to the WOGO website, 81 percent of Nepalese depend on agriculture for their livelihood, with most of them living on the equivalent of one U.S. dollar a day. Further, the website reports, 85 percent of the people in the country don’t have access to basic health care, including orthopedic care. Without the treatment the women will get from the eight-day mission, Thomas said the mothers and grandmothers would otherwise not be treated and would have to accept their often-debilitating condition. The California native got into orthopedics after being injured skating. Fellowship-trained at The Dorr Arthritis Institute in Inglewood, Calif., Thomas turned her pain into passion and now says she “love(s) joint replacement.” Since graduating medical school at Northwestern University 1997, completing her surgical residency in ’98 and her orthopedic surgery residency in 2001, Thomas said she has been in the room for over 600 joint replacement surgeries annually and has personally participated each year in over 400 procedures. “Literally, when you take these people and completely change their lives, it’s special,” the former Olympian said of the joint replacement patients she’s operated on. She is a longtime medical philanthropist, having donated her time and services to such efforts such as Operation Walk Los Angeles – where she performed free joint replacements – and TEAM HEAL, which gives sports medical and athletic training care to sports programs at underserved high schools. She got involved with WOGO after another fellow had to drop out of the organization.  Thomas explained that in a specialty with so few members as fellowship-trained orthopedic surgery, losing one in the organization was “huge” and would have compromised the organization’s missions, including the one to Nepal. Thomas stepped in and hopes that the fame of her name helps WOGO garner much needed financial support and recognition. All of the services and equipment ¼– including the actual replacement prosthetics – for the mission are made possible through donations, she explained. In the U.S. joint replacement surgeries could cost upwards of $20,000, Thomas said. But doing the mission work in Nepal could also be a lesson in cost saving and efficiency for this country’s medical industry, demonstrating how to do more with less. “By having to work with your limited resources you realize what you are actually capable of doing, which we don’t really do that very much in our (U.S.) health system,” Thomas said. But for her, the mission to Nepal will be an organic one in the field of medicine she finds intriguing and rewarding. “It’s real orthopedic surgery,” the hall of fame former skater said. “And the best part of it is making people go from completely dysfunctional to fully functional.” Copyright 2010 Chicago Defender (Defender/Worsom Robinson)

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