Operation Access provides free surgical procedures to three Contra Costa County women
on June 21, 2011
Summers are meant for swimming holes, drive-in movie theaters and cross-country road trips. Going to a hospital usually doesn’t make a summer to-do list, especially when the visit entails delicate surgeries with sharp, steely knives. But for three low-income, uninsured Contra Costa County residents, surgery was a dream come true.
Operation Access and a team of medical volunteers lead by Dr. Aaron Baggs successfully performed three operations Saturday morning at Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center. The operations included a para-umbilical hernia repair, a hemorrhoidectomy and a lipomal removal—the extraction of a benign fatty tumor. Operation Access provides medical attention to those who can’t afford treatment and do not have medical insurance. “Operation Access patients tend to have non-life-threatening problems that have bothered them sometimes for years,” said Dr. Baggs.
A volunteer for the past six years, Dr. Baggs said he understands these patients are not able to get the type of care they need but their ability to work would be impeded without the operations.
Jenevieve Graner, regional program manager for Operation Access in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, said the program started in San Francisco in 1993 but now has expanded to five other bay area counties: San Mateo, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa. “Patients go to their community clinic and are referred to Operation Access by their primary care giver,” said Graner. “They screen for medical and financial eligibility and then they go into a queue.”
Graner said there are between 600-700 low-income and uninsured people in the queue. Most patients come from Alameda and Contra Costa where there are larger numbers of uninsured people, she said. “The services provided in Conta Costa alone in 2010 by Operation Access was 233,” she said.
According to Operation Access’ Annual Report for 2010, the average yearly income for their patients was $17, 760 for a family of four. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $22, 350.
Graner said donations and funding from private foundations help finance the program. The hospitals that partner with Operation Access donate the labor, equipment, medication, she said.
“Our patients are working adults but they don’t make enough money to pay for any kind of health care,” said Graner. “They’re 250 percent under the poverty level. They can live a life but it’s not lavish. They’re just making it by especially if they have a family.”
Dressed in a light blue hospital gown Cynthia Nizar, 28, of Antioch, waited for her operation to begin. She sat in a lima-green recliner with a white sheet draped over her extended legs while nurses asked her questions about her medical history. Her left arm rested on a pillow. The top of her hand had been punctured with an intravenous needle that was securely taped to her skin so it wouldn’t move during her operation to get rid of hemorroids—a common symptom for women during pregnancy.
“I’m excited because I’m going to get rid of the problem now,” said Nizar. “I’ve had the problem since the fourth month of pregnancy. My baby is now eight months old. I don’t wish this for anybody—it’s terrible.”
Richmond Medical Center nurse Jacalyn Killeen said it’s important to get illnesses treated before they turn into grave complications. “Something like hemorroids or a hernia could turn into something serious that could lead to an emergency room visit. If the symptom becomes incarcerated and the dead piece of tissue stays in your body, you could die,” she said.
Killeen added people typically put off visits to the doctor, especially when they don’t have health insurance. Operation Access addresses quality of life issues, she said. “These symptoms might affect relationships and how one perceives themself. You don’t know what’s going on with a person,” she said.
Resting behind a curtain just to the left of Nizar waited another patient, Evangelina Arellano, 23, of Pittsburg. Alone, she mustered the courage to wait her turn on the operating table. In Spanish she told Josephine Avila, Dr. Bagg’s medical assistant, that she was nervous. Avila responded in Spanish and told her that everything would be okay and that she was in good hands.
Arellano was referred to Operation Access because one day she saw a co-worker sad that she had found small tumors in her body. Now concerned for her own wellbeing, Arellano went to her community clinic to have the tumor she had been carrying in her left underarm for 11 years diagnosed and removed.
Now with her wish about to come true, Arellano’s complexion went pale as she watched a needle slide through her skin and into her left hand. Sensing nervousness, nurse Tairat Asuni came over to hold her free hand. “I think she can take it,” said Asuni. “She’s been talking tough!”
They both laughed. In the end, they knew things would be okay.
By this point, less than an hour after being pushed into the operating room, Nizar, asleep, had been moved into the recovery room. Now it was Arellano’s turn. She climbed out of her own lima-green recliner and walked past the resting patient. Escorted by a volunteer, Arellano marched forward and pushed through two swinging doors that led to the operating room.
Fifteen minutes later Nizar woke from her induced slumber. Her lips were pale and weathered as if needing water. “Where am I?” Nizar asks. Her eyes blink as if she was looking into the sun. “I don’t remember anything—I was talking and then Poof! I fell asleep. I’m feeling great. No pain.”
After all of the surgeries were done, Dr. Baggs said the three patients did great with anesthesia and that each operation took less than one hour. After recovery the patients were wheeled out to the pick-up zone and each stepped into their family’s car to go home, said Dr. Baggs.
“I feel like a new person!” said Arellano after her surgery. She said Dr. Baggs told her the tumor she carried for 11 years was on the large side, but that there was no need to worry. “The staff and hospital were great. Now I just need rest and not lift anything heavy.”
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