By Melissa Fuson, Vitals contributor
As the holiday season shifted into high gear, delivery drivers like Amaral Randera worked longer hours, lifting and carrying packages from early morning until well after the sun went down.
For Randera, who lives and works in San Mateo County, the extra workload would have been especially painful without surgery to repair a hernia he’d been enduring for months.
“It hurt especially when I coughed, bent over or when I was lifting heavy objects at work,” he says. “But I didn’t have health insurance, so I couldn’t afford to pay for the surgery to fix it.”
Most hernias form in the abdominal wall or groin area when an organ pushes through the muscle or tissue that contains it. Over time, they can grow and produce a bulge in the abdomen. Rigorous physical activity and heavy lifting can exacerbate a hernia.
Randera’s pain became so debilitating he wound up in a San Mateo County emergency department earlier this year. There, he was referred to Operation Access, a nonprofit organization that pairs surgeons in the Bay Area with patients who can’t afford a needed procedure. Operation Access connected Randera with Sutter-affiliated surgeon Dr. Eric Kubat.
Every year, Sutter partners with not-for-profit community partners, including Operation Access, to provide no cost surgery as part the “Gift of Surgery” program. Through the program surgeons and medical teams at dozens of Sutter-affiliated ambulatory surgery centers throughout Northern California volunteer their time and expertise to offer life-changing elective surgeries to patients who otherwise would not be able to afford them.
Surgeries may include cataract removal, knee-ligament repair, gallbladder removal and hernia repair, among many others. Patients are selected based on their medical conditions, current health status and financial need.
Dr. Kubat began volunteering with Operation Access in 2017. Since then, he has provided more than 40 no-cost procedures for patients in need. “Most Operation Access patients are focused on making ends meet and their health takes a backseat to that,” says Dr. Kubat, who performed Randera’s outpatient hernia repair at PAMF Surgery Center, San Carlos. “A few hours of our time can be completely life-altering and give them one less thing to worry about.”
Post surgery, Randera says he is so grateful to be recovering well. “I’m looking forward to getting back to work, and back to my regular life.”
For Maria Lourdes Cruz Montero, 51, being connected with a volunteer Sutter physician meant not only freedom from pain, but also peace of mind.
For years, Montero experienced abnormal, very heavy menstrual bleeding caused by polyps on her uterus. The blood loss made her anemic, which caused her to feel exhausted almost daily, she says.
Montero needed a hysterectomy but couldn’t afford one. Instead, she had annual biopsies to identify potential cancer development in the polyps. She showed up for her housekeeping clients each day, enduring pain, blood clots and fatigue, because she didn’t have a choice.
A referral to Operation Access and Sutter gynecologist Dr. Jessica Kassis, felt like a lifeline.
“Being connected to Operation Access and Dr. Kassis offered huge relief. Before, I worried about not having money and having to work and live through the pain and discomfort,” she says. “Knowing I had this support, I felt so grateful.”
Dr. Kassis, who also operates out of PAMF Surgery Center, San Carlos, found out about Operation Access through her husband, Dr. Kubat. Today, both offer necessary surgeries to patients in need not only during Sutter’s Gift of Surgery, but year-round.
“I hold a special place in my heart for my Operation Access patients, who are possibly the most appreciative patients I have cared for,” Dr. Kassis says. “It is really my honor and privilege to help them.”
Dr. Kubat agrees: “There are many barriers to health care access in the Bay Area. The opportunity to provide excellent patient care regardless of financial means is so rewarding. It is truly amazing working with these patients!”
In 2023, surgeons and care teams at Sutter ASCs performed 47 life-changing surgeries during the two-month Gift of Surgery program, including hernia repair, cataract surgery, colonoscopies and more.