- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) - Sarah Braxton of Huntingdon downplayed the role she had in bringing a man from Ecuador to Altoona for the hip replacement surgery that he’s expected to receive today and that he said will change his life.

“I feel like he’s my family,” said Braxton. “It’s just what friends and families do for each other.”

Braxton had called hospitals from Hershey to Pittsburgh to get a new hip for her friend, Mauricio Benitez, whom she’s known since she started teaching English in a program about 10 years ago in his country. But no one wanted to help her until she heard about Dr. Chris McClellan of Altoona, who is on staff at University Orthopedics Center in Altoona.

McClellan had performed hip replacement surgery on Braxton’s neighbor, so she called and asked the doctor if he would do the same surgery for her friend. McClellan not only agreed, he said he would do it pro bono.

McClellan was scheduled to perform the hip replacement procedure Friday at the Advanced Center for Surgery.

“It’s always easy to donate money, but to donate our skills and expertise that UOC holds is priceless,” he said.

Benitez and his mother, Beatriz Balseca, came to Altoona earlier this week to prepare for the surgery. Balseca called Braxton “an angel” and said she thinks of her like a sister. Balseca is 80 and had to get her doctor’s approval to make the journey.

She and her son live in a town in Ecuador called Otavalo. She said she was afraid to make the trip, but she was determined because she wanted to be there for her son.

“I wanted to see my son walk normally,” Balseca said. “With this operation, it will be another life for him.”

Benitez, 42, said he couldn’t believe it when Braxton told him that she’d made arrangements for him to have the surgery.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “I am just so happy.”

He used to be very active in sports, playing soccer and participating in other outdoor activities until he was injured in a motorcycle accident when he was 16. His hip injury severely restricted his movements, causing him to walk with a limp, and it got worse as he got older, he said.

Braxton, who is a part-time librarian at Juniata Valley Elementary School, met the family when she enrolled in the English class as a Second Language Program at Juniata College, where her husband, Donald, is a professor of religion. Part of the program includes spending time in the summer in Ecuador teaching English to the native people and living with a host family.

She stayed with Benitez and his mother, returning the next year to stay with them again, quickly feeling at home with them.

“I had such an enriching experience,” she said. “They’re just such a very generous and loving family. We got along very well, enough for me to want to go back.”

From the start, Braxton noticed Benitez’s limp and wanted to help him, but she soon ran into roadblocks. She realized how hard it is for people in Ecuador to live in the U.S. temporarily, she said.

The U.S. is reluctant to grant visas, even for medical reasons, out of concerns that recipients will not return to their native countries, Braxton said.

But after she got McClellan’s name from her neighbor, she also learned that he’d graduated from Juniata College and that gave her another reason to think he might be willing to perform the surgery for her friend, she said.

“I thought, ‘Now, there’s a connection, and maybe I can make another connection,’” she said.

McClellan agreed to look at Benitez’s X-rays and then he called Braxton, telling her that he could help Benitez without charging for his services.

Braxton said at first she was a little surprised to hear that because all she’d thought about was lining up a doctor.

“I was like, OK, because I hadn’t really thought about the cost,” she said.

McClellan said Braxton’s request “just made sense” to him.

“I wanted to do this because I don’t get the opportunity always to help someone in this capacity, another individual from another country,” he said. “Sarah’s husband is also a professor at Juniata College, which is my alma mater.”

The surgery was originally scheduled for a month ago, but Benitez’s visa got held by local authorities, Braxton said.

The uncertainty of not knowing if and when the surgery would be rescheduled was hard on mother and son, they said earlier this week.

“I was worried about losing the opportunity,” Benitez said.

He found out his visa was finally approved, after three weeks of waiting and after a lot of praying, his mother said, the surgery was back on track.

“All of the distress left,” he said. “Everything was again better.”

Benitez and his mother will stay with Braxton until December while he recuperates from the outpatient surgery. McClellan said he planned to remove the ball and socket of the hip joint and replace them with artificial parts made of titanium and ceramic.

The anesthesiologist at the surgery center and the Home Nursing Agency, which will handle physical therapy for Benitez, agreed to provide services at reduced cost, McClellan said.

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