Surgeons, nurses, and medical assistants from across the Bay Area pried themselves away from the operating table Thursday night to be honored at Operation Access’ annual dinner.
The nonprofit group, affiliated with the Alameda-Contra Costa Medical Association, has provided around 9,000 free surgeries to those who cannot afford them in six California counties, and took the opportunity to thank its top volunteers.
“We really like to have one night a year where we can show them how much we absolutely love them and can’t do without them,” said East Bay program coordinator Jenevieve Graner.
Awards were given to nominees selected from a pool of 500 volunteers in the Bay Area and winners were announced at the dinner, held at an American Red Cross center in Oakland. Two Richmond volunteers, Dr. Aaron Baggs and RN Peggy Schmidt were nominated for the “Champion Award,” which recognizes those who have played key roles in implementing the program at their medical center. Baggs, a bariatric surgeon at the Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center where the free surgeries are performed, won the award.
“Operation Access is a wonderful group that does a lot of good coordination and care for patients who otherwise wouldn’t get operations that they need in Richmond and I’ve been pretty glad to be a part of it for the last four years,” he said.
Baggs has performed 56 volunteer surgeries, the most common of which are for hernias, hemorrhoids and gallstones. He volunteered internationally before he found out about Operation Access four years ago.
“It’s a big deal to take three weeks off and travel to the Philippines or another country. In Operation Access, the patients come to us,” he said. “We donate our Saturday mornings to come in and do surgery.”
Laura Patnode, who had a cyst in her wrist removed, spoke at the dinner. “I couldn’t believe that anybody would volunteer so much of their time to help people like myself and I was really deeply, deeply moved,” she said. “It has honestly made a huge difference in my life.”
Operation Access has grown steadily since its inception in 1993 – especially in 2009, after the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors decided to eliminate non-emergency healthcare for undocumented immigrants.
“Now you have 5,500 adult uninsured people who were undocumented according to the county who were no longer getting access to any kind of care,” Graner said. “We were at the table and I think a lot of people told the Board of Supervisors not to do it — but they did it anyway.”
She added that health care reform is unlikely to lessen demand for Operation Access.
Next year, the organization will celebrate its 20th anniversary, and expects to hit two milestones: $10 million worth of medical care and 10,000 patients served.
Two of the three co-founders, Dr. Douglas Grey and Paul Hofmann, were at the dinner and explained that they wanted to create an outlet for doctors like Baggs who had volunteered abroad but could serve locally as well.
“We have more volunteers than we can use, the response has been so great,” Hofmann said. “It has been a wonderful journey that would not be possible if it were not for the people contributing tonight.”
At the podium, Grey said volunteers at Operation Access have convinced him of an “untapped altruism that exists in healthcare.”