Helping the Uninsured
CPMC Helps Uninsured Patients Be Pain-Free and 'Normal Again'
By George Nevin
Laura Ayala’s intense pain started five years ago, after her son was born. At 11 pounds, the lusty boy was healthy, but carrying his weight during pregnancy put a severe strain on her body.
“I was in pain every time I leaned over,” she says.“ I could not do normal exercise, or even walk. I couldn’t pick up my son, though I really wanted to.”
Her condition was diagnosed as prolapse (bulging) of the bladder, which put painful pressure on other organs. But she lacked health insurance and could not afford surgery.
Then she heard about Operation Access, a San Francisco nonprofit organization that makes it possible for Bay Area residents to get needed surgical care.
Last June at CPMC, Ayala’s bulging bladder was successfully returned to its normal position by a team led by CPMC surgeon Heidi Wittenberg, M.D.
“Dr. Wittenberg gave me a second chance. She took an interest in helping me. Thanks to her, everything turned out well,” Ayala says.
Operation Access (OA), founded in 1993, is dedicated to bringing together greater Bay Area health care organizations and skilled medical volunteers to provide the uninsured with free outpatient surgeries that significantly improve their health, ability to work and quality of life.
In 2001, Sutter Health’s California Pacific Medical Center joined the OA coalition in support of OA’s mission.
Twenty-six CPMC physicians currently volunteer with OA, providing more than $850,000 worth of services in the first half of 2011 alone. The total since 2001: 686 surgeries and other medical procedures.
A typical OA procedure involves a surgeon donating his or her time, and a medical facility such as a hospital or surgical center donating everything else – anesthesiology services, an operating room, personnel such as nurses and technicians, and surgical supplies.
“It takes an entire surgical team to make it happen,” says Ali Balick, OA’s program manager. “CPMC and their partners at San Francisco Endoscopy Center have been incredibly supportive of our program, and we could not be more grateful for everything they have done for us and for our patients.”
She continues: “Not only does CPMC provide more services than any other hospital in OA’s entire network (32 participating medical centers), but OA’s patient survey results show that patients feel incredibly comfortable and supported when having a procedure at CPMC.”
CPMC physician Thomas L. Engel, M.D., a volunteer OA surgeon, sometimes sees as many as two OA patients per month. Dr. Engel, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor), is often called on to deal with chronic tonsillitis, sleep apnea and chronic infections of the ear or salivary glands.
“OA is a good group to work with,” says Dr. Engel, who practices at the San Francisco Ear, Nose and Throat Medical Group. “They make good use of my time. They’re a very grateful group of people.”
Dr. Wittenberg has been an OA volunteer since 2010. Last year, she won OA’s Unsung Heroes Award for her “unmatched level of dependability.” Another CPMC physician, Michelle Li, M.D., won OA’s Legacy Award in 2010 for her “unparalleled level of enthusiasm for OA’s mission.”
“Operation Access is great,” says Dr. Wittenberg, a member of the Pacific Obstetrics and Gynecology Medical Group in San Francisco. “It allows me to do charity work without leaving the confines of my office or my operating room. They do a wonderful job of facilitating these surgeries. If you like to give back to the community, they really make it easy.”
“Patients come to me with what they feel is an embarrassing problem, having endured severe pain and having toughed it out. I feel I can help them triumph over adversity. To see them come back after surgery, feeling so much better, really tugs at you,” says Dr. Wittenberg.
Through OA, Dr. Wittenberg has helped 14 patients “get to a place where they can enjoy their lives without pain,” she says.
Today, Ayala is pain-free and can lift her son. “I lack the words to express my thanks,” she says. “Dr. Wittenberg changed my life. I feel very blessed.”
Contacting Operation Access
115 Sansome St., Suite 1205
San Francisco, CA 94104