Dra. Jessica Maria Tumbaco Córdova Can Tame Even the Most Rebellious Feet
Dra. Jessica Maria Tumbaco Córdova is a children’s orthopedic surgeon who studied in Mexico City before returning to her native Ecuador in 2016. Originally studying traumatology medicine, she went on to specialize in orthopedics which is how she learned about clubfoot and the Ponseti method. Today she is the only orthopedic surgeon and the only trained Ponseti provider in the Hospital de Especialidades where she works. She spoke with us about what drew her to a career in medicine, how COVID has impacted her work, and her hopes for the future.
What attracted you to becoming a doctor?
I saw that through medicine I could help people. There are a lot of birth deformities and defects in the world, and I’d like to do a thousand different things to help, but one thing I’ve done is treat patients with clubfoot. It is so exciting when a patient finishes treatment and the parents say, “Doctor, I don’t know how to repay you. I owe you my whole life because now my child walks, jumps, runs, uses shoes, and his feet are completely normal.”
How do you feel when you think about the impact treatment has on the lives of children born with clubfoot?
If you could only see the happiness the parents have. I do clubfoot treatment on Wednesdays and on those days I make sure that parents of children receiving treatment meet one another so they can talk and share information. It’s beautiful when you see that your work, effort, and dedication are really worth it. Sometimes it makes me want to cry. When a parent calls and sends videos and says, “Look how his feet are doing,” and I think, wow, we are really making a difference. It’s a feeling I can’t quite fully express.
What are the biggest challenges for families who have children with clubfoot?
It’s difficult because first we have to tell the parents that their child has clubfoot, because they usually don’t know what it is, and then we must tell them about the treatment process. I personally take this task very seriously and each week I call my patients to tell them not to give up on the treatment. There are a lot of parents with low economic resources, so we try to help by paying for travel to and from the clinic. And at each appointment we insist that they don’t give up because treatment is effective, and once it’s over, their children will be able to walk normally.
In the communities you work with, do you see stigma or discrimination towards children with clubfoot?
Yes, it’s a struggle to help people understand that it is a genetic deformity, but completely treatable. Parents often cover up their newborns, and children who are starting to walk are given nicknames. We try to change this by explaining what clubfoot is, that simply there were alterations during their baby’s growth. We explain that we don’t know the exact cause, but we can correct it.
Can you talk about the impact COVID has had on your work?
When the pandemic started it was very difficult, especially those first two months because there were children in the middle of treatment, and children who needed the next size up shoes and braces, so unfortunately a lot of patients relapsed. The little patients have to come each week to change out their casts, and we had to tell them not to come in because we didn’t know when we could return to work. After two months we were able to return to the hospital with the safety precautions, and I started doing treatment again with the children that needed it the most: those who had relapsed and new cases.
Is there a patient that comes to mind who especially touched your heart?
There are so many. Every child has their own story. Some are happier, others less so, but each one of them is beautiful, and each child is special. Among them we have one very special boy named Oscar. Oscar is a boy who was born with myelomeningocele, bilateral hip dysplasia, and bilateral clubfoot. When he first came to see me, he was only 6 weeks old, and he was the first patient I had with that condition. I put the casts on him and at the same time he used a harness brace. So, to be able to see him walk, and walk as if he had never had anything wrong with his feet, that really impacted me.
What keeps you motivated to continue your work each day?
The fact that I know about this disability and I know that with my own two hands I can give a better life to a patient. When a child with clubfoot comes to see me, I wonder if these will be simple feet or rebellious feet. I tell the parents that we can correct the foot, it doesn’t cost them anything. I am so excited to be there and do this treatment because I know that I’m going to take these children into my heart, see them once a week, check their hips, their feet. It’s knowing that right now, I can help them.
What is your hope for the future?
In my country and in other countries in Latin America, I would like for the Ponseti method to be very well established. In Ecuador, currently, there are only about ten orthopedic doctors. I would like for the government to see that any child can be born with clubfoot – it doesn’t matter who their parents are – and every child has the right to receive treatment.
I would like if one day the government would release a report on a national level on World Clubfoot Day so that people could learn about it and know what it is. I would like to be known someday within my country as a clubfoot expert who can handle even the most rebellious feet.
Really, as a doctor you marry and fall in love with the Ponseti method and you want to know more, and do more, but sometimes we lack training or resources because it is its own little world. I hope that more colleagues can be trained and can practice the method. Once you see the results of what you are doing, no one can stop you. It’s…I don’t know how to say it, but it’s like you work with two little feet and then they transform, and it’s like nothing was ever different. It’s something that…well, you say, I did that. I fixed that – it can’t be true.