Lend a Hand to Operation Small Steps

You can help former Nittany Lion Justin Kurpeikis and his team take care of kids in Madagascar who have serious orthopedic problems.

Former Penn State and NFL football player Justin Kurpeikis and a team of medical experts are working hard to help fight an epidemic of the disease club foot in the distant land of Madagascar.

And they can use a hand to do it.

The team, from Operation Small Steps, is making its second trip to Madagascar this year. To help fund the trip, there is a party at the Gingerbread Man in State College the evening of Wednesday, April 25.

Attendees will have a chance to rub shoulders with former Penn State football stars, bid on unique sports memorabilia, and enjoy great food and drinks.

Check out the invitation below. It is followed by an extensive story on Operation Small Steps that ran in Fight On State The Magazine last year.

FOS is proud to support Operation Small Steps.


Kurpeikis in Madagascar.

HEADLINE: Stepping Up
SUBHEAD: Former Nittany Lion Justin Kurpeikis traveled halfway around the world to help people with severe orthopedic problems
BYLINE: Daniel Krieg

Having played four years of collegiate football with Penn State and an additional seven seasons in the pros, Justin Kurpeikis is no stranger to flying.

But no turbulent flight or rocky landing could have prepared the former Nittany Lion defensive end for what he and a team of medical professionals saw on their descent into Mandritsara, Madagascar on the morning of April 10, 2011.

“We were on a 10-seat plane flying from Antananarivo (the capital of Madagascar) to Mandritsara,” recalled Kurpeikis, who now lives in State College. “As we were about to land I looked out the window and saw we were heading for a huge grass field. Everyone was herding their cows away from where we were heading. We somehow landed safely on the grass, and when we got off the plane hundreds and hundreds of Malagasy people stood shoulder-by-shoulder staring at us.”

It was not a look of hostility, but “awe,” as Kurpeikis said. The Malagasy, natives of Madagascar, a small island country located in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa, happily received the travelers. Soon, people from villages as far as 70 miles away traveled by foot to receive treatment from American orthopedic surgeons.

• After months of preparation, research and fundraising, Dr. Jack Rocco, his team of medical professionals from Altoona, and the Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation acquired the necessary resources to make Operational Small Steps' inaugural trip to Madagascar.

The mission of OSS is “providing free orthopedic medical treatment and services in areas where access is limited.” Madagascar, where an unusually high percentage of children suffer from the deformity club foot, was selected as the first destination.

The first member of the traveling team was Rocco's wife Kari-Ann, who took charge of medical records and translating the many languages the group encountered. Then there was nurse anesthetist Brian Duclos, nurses Jill Duclos and Carla Kech, and surgical technician Jennifer Miller.

But Rocco needed one more person for the trip. A “jack of all trades” kind of guy. He found his man in Kurpeikis, a medical sales representative for Biomet, a company that sells artificial hips. Rocco, a member of the University Orthopedics Center, met the former Nittany Lion and Pittsburgh Steeler while performing surgeries using products Kurpeikis sold.

Kurpeikis became a regular stand-by for operations. Meanwhile, the men became close friends, and when Rocco needed to fill his final roster spot for the Madagascar trip, he called on Kurpeikis.

• When Kurpeikis, Rocco and their team reached Madagascar, they were initially impressed with the island's natural beauty. Quickly, though, the group began to realize the people who lived in Madagascar could not appreciate its charm in quite the same way, and for good reason.

“We were walking around town the first day we got to Antananarivo, a 5-year-old girl who was badly malnourished with frayed hair walked up to us holding a 2-year-old boy and asked for help,” Kurpeikis recalled. “We were so excited to be there, but then we saw how these people live in extreme poverty and we realized we're not here on any kind of vacation … we're here to help people.”

They did exactly that.

During their one-week stay in Mandritsara, Rocco and his medical professionals saw 146 patients and performed 52 procedures including surgical cases, aspirations and serial castings. Although a lack of follow-up visits made it difficult to assess how each patient responded to surgery, Rocco said the results were largely positive.

“What I think we did best was establishing relationships with the people and gaining their trust,” Rocco said. “We're still hearing that patients are coming to the 'Good News Hospital' (where the surgeries were performed) and talking about us and hoping we plan a return trip because this was a very special visit for them.”

Rocco admitted, however, that without Kurpeikis' help and strong personality, the trip would not have gone as smoothly.

“The Malagasky people aren't very tall and to see how tall Justin was (6-foot-4), they were in awe of him and how outgoing he was,” Rocco said. “I'm not sure if it's his friendly nature or his exposure to sports that creates his willingness and open-minded attitude, but a lot of people in a situation like the one he was in wouldn't have had his fearlessness and wouldn't have embraced the new cultures and experiences like he did.

“Justin did everything we asked of him,” Rocco said. “He helped organize medical records, assisted in patient consultations and even went into town to get video equipment when we needed to film something. He truly was that jack-of-all-trades guy.”

• Although he did not take part in the actual surgeries, Kurpeikis says he was most impressed by the personalities of the men, women and children he met in Madagascar.

He fondly remembered a young boy he met who had one club foot surgically repaired by an American orthopedic surgeon five years ago, but now wanted to have his other foot fixed so he could finally ride a bike. The boy admitted the surgery would be costly and painful, but he remained committed to making his dream of riding a bike come true.

“What amazed me was how grateful the kids were before and after these intense, painful procedures,” Kurpeikis said. “They always kept a smile on their face. They were so tough and I was so proud of them.”

Kurpeikis admitted, though, that his heart ached each time he spoke with a child affected by club foot.

“It's upsetting to see a young person like that,” Kurpeikis said. “They can fight extreme poverty, but if they have club foot they won't have a normal life. They won't marry or have a regular job. I'm sure sports would be something they'd want do but a normal life is the main goal for them.”

• When Kurpeikis, Rocco and the entire Madagascar team returned home, they reflected on their time in Africa and how Operation Small Steps can take even greater leaps in the future to help children suffering with club foot and other orthopedic problems.

“It's one of those situations where you plan to go and help people and the reality is when you get home you realize these people did a lot more for you than you could have for them,” Kurpeikis said. “It was an amazing experience … it kind of hit the reset button on the perspective meter.”

For Rocco, the founder of Operation Small Steps, an honest reflection on what worked and what could have been better have raised his aspirations for the organization's future.

“Of course there were disappointments in what we weren't able to do, but that's what makes you want to go back and do even better,” Rocco said.

Rocco has outlined “four pillars” that should greatly improve Operation Small Steps' next visit to Africa. One: an improved mission, or in other words to go back again with a more efficient team and greater access to medical supplies; Two: initiate an exchange program between American pediatric orthopedic specialists and Malagasy doctors so children with the club foot disease understand it is a treatable condition; Three: fund select complex patient transportation to the U.S. for specialized treatment; Four: designate a percentage of funds raised to be given back to the local Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation, which initially gave Operation Small Steps the capital to get started.

As for Kurpeikis, he hopes to remain extremely involved in Operation Small Steps by taking part in both the next trip to Africa and by spreading word of the organization in the Penn State community.

What remains to be seen is Kurpeikis' job title for future trips. Yes, he excelled as a “jack of all trades,” but do not be surprised if Kurpeikis has a loftier status a few years from now.

“I worked pre-med in college and I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, so that's something that's still a possibility,” Kurpeikis said. “That experience being down there (in Madagascar), that may be what gets me back into wanting to go to medical school.”

For more on Operation Small Steps and how you can help a great cause, visit this link.

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