Providing Service One Knee at a Time

Malawi is often referred to as the ‘warm heart’ of Africa, which also describes 63-year-old Christine Vollmer, as she is the ‘warm heart’ of Chicago and patient of Dr. Richard Berger.

The Hyde Park resident is preparing to spend the next two years serving with the Peace Corps in one of the poorest nations in the world: Malawi.

As an Illinois Master Gardener, Vollmer has chosen the role as an Environment and Food Security Educator, which will entail: assisting with energy conservation, sustainability and teaching the community permaculture practices.

“This position spoke to me on many levels,” said Vollmer, “I will be in a rural village without electricity or running water, but I’m so excited to be immersed in the community.”

According to the Ecologist Journal, millions of people in Malawi face a food shortage and potential starvation each year. The only way to survive is by growing their own crops to provide both their main source of food, and often their only source of income.

Vollmer not only has a passion for helping others, she’s also dedicated to fulfilling an active lifestyle. In-between walks along Lake Michigan and water aerobics, she volunteers with the Cook County Forest Preserves and Hyde Park Garden Fair Committee.

In the spring of 2015, her struggle with knee pain began to affect her quality of life, making everyday tasks difficult, even more so while living on the top floor of a three-flat in Chicago.

It wasn’t until her husband was in need of wheelchair assistance, after a hip injury, when Vollmer realized it was time to find a permanent solution to her knee constraints.

“It was hard for me to push him and walk myself,” Vollmer recalled, “I also had to stop jogging and limit how much walking I could do. It was hard to feel like I was getting my exercise in.”

She was informed by a colleague of Dr. Berger’s minimally invasive outpatient knee replacement procedure and immediately made an appointment to come see him. After some consideration, she scheduled surgery, set for the fall of 2016.

Unfortunately, a few months prior to surgery, Vollmer’s husband fell terminally ill and was ultimately placed on hospice care.

Suddenly, Vollmer was uncertain as to whether she should proceed or postpone her surgeries. She became apprehensive about the potential lack of support for her and her husband while she recovered. It was in the midst of her decision that her husband sadly passed away.

At that time, she knew undergoing the knee replacement operations would be the best course of action and that her husband would have wanted what was best for her.

Her devoted family joined together to help Vollmer with her recovery. Her two daughters, sister and friends all lent hands to make sure she had everything she needed throughout her early stages of recovery.

“I’m very happy that Dr. Berger’s practice stressed the importance of family and friend support,” said Vollmer.

Although Berger’s patients are typically self-sufficient as soon as 48 hours after surgery, it is important to him that his approach allow patients to leave the hospital the same day of surgery, granting them the opportunity to recover with their loved ones.

In the year following Vollmer’s bilateral knee replacements, she accomplished an array of physical goals, including a 12.5 mile hike through the mountains of New Zealand.

“I feel pretty open to try anything,” said Vollmer, “I’m actually in the best shape I’ve been in for a long time and I don’t have any physical limitations. When I go to Malawi, I’m not worried about any physical restrictions, just the language immersion.”

Vollmer is aware that only 7% of the Peace Corps volunteers are over the age of 50, which only increases her enthusiasm to serve. Though Malawi ranks 170th on the human development scale out of the 188 developed countries in the world, it also carries the highest volunteer satisfaction rating in the Peace Corps.

“I realize this is not a trip or a vacation; it’s a service. I want to ramp up my volunteering and help as much as I can while I’m still physically fit and able to do so,” said Vollmer, “I’m thankful to Dr. Berger for contributing to an important task in making that happen!”

It’s undeniable: Christine Vollmer is a natural born caretaker and she exudes compassion in ways most are unable to comprehend. She doesn’t let challenges and hardships stand in the way of assisting others in need and making the world a better place. Lives will be changed for the better during her service in the Peace Corps, and her new knees will help take her there.