JOSE HERNANDEZ is back running again after receiving free surgery from Operation Access to repair his torn Achilles tendon.
Jose Hernandez loves to run.
"I like it most when it's raining," he said through a translator. "When it starts to rain, I go running and my wife thinks I'm nuts."
After he tore his Achilles tendon playing soccer, he could barely walk - making it nearly impossible to do his work as a landscaper and janitor. But he had no way of affording the surgery he needed to recover from the injury. He began to give up hope of ever running again, as well as his dream of raising his sons in Sonoma Valley, the community he has called home for 13 years.
"We decided we probably would have to go back to Mexico and pay for the surgery," said his wife, Sandra Hernandez, adding that it would have meant taking their sons out of school and away from the only life they've ever known. "It would have been very difficult."
With nowhere else to turn, the Hernandez family went to Mass at St. Leo's Catholic Church and prayed for an answer. Those calls for help were answered later that week when a friend told Jose about Operation Access, a Bay Area nonprofit that provides free surgeries, medical screenings and diagnostic testing to those living below 250 percent of the federal poverty line. According to its annual report, the average annual income for an Operation Access patient is $17,760 for a family of four.
Within days of contacting the organization, Dr. Thomas Fitzgerald, a podiatrist at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, agreed to take on Jose's case. When Jose woke up from surgery in April, after seven months of living with excruciating pain, he finally felt relief.
"What a miracle that it was so soon that we were able to see the doctor," Sandra Hernandez said. "For us, it was a gift from heaven, because we felt like all the doors were closed to us."
Operation Access works with 89 community health clinics across six counties in the Bay Area. All patients must be referred to the organization by a clinic - in Jose's case, he had seen physicians at both the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center and the St. Joseph Mobile Health Clinic, both of which had contacted Operation Access on his behalf before he called the nonprofit himself.
"It doesn't matter what their circumstances are, we get our patients what they need," said Luz Ceja, referrals coordinator at the Health Center, who refers five to seven patients a month to Operation Access, based on physician recommendations. "They (Operation Access) are fabulous, I love them. They have their priorities right."
The organization works with more than 1,000 Bay Area medical providers, 95 of which are in Sonoma County, including doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians, who volunteer their time and expertise to provide medical care for indigent patients. Recently, Sonoma-based ophthalmologist Dr. Sonja Schluter joined the ranks and will be donating eye care services at Petaluma Valley Hospital. Each provider decides which cases he or she would like to take on and how much time they will volunteer, which can range from seeing several patients a month to just two a year.
"Most of the procedures are fairly simple, uncomplicated procedures that (physicians) crank out dozens of each day, what's one more a month? That one more means a lot to our patients," said Daniel Rabkin, a program manager in the North Bay with Operation Access. "We make sure we don't overload them with cases," Rabkin added. "They're always free to turn down a procedure."
The organization also works with 33 area hospitals and medical centers, including Petaluma Valley Hospital, Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa and Sutter Medical Center in Santa Rosa, which cover the cost of the space and equipment needed for the procedure while the medical staff donates its time. Some hospitals agree to pay nurses and technicians, only having a doctor donate his or her time.
"We work with whatever system they're comfortable with," Rabkin said.
In 2010, Operation Access connected 1,392 patients like Jose to specialty care procedures they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. Rabkin said the majority of procedures are basic surgeries such as hernia repairs, but the organization also helps patients who need biopsies, gastroenterology procedures such as colonoscopies, gynecological care and medical therapy.
"We tell patients it can take up to four months, but sometimes it's faster, it just depends on when the physician is available," Rabkin said. "In Jose's case, he was happy because it was literally days."
Rabkin said Operation Access sticks with the patient until they are completely healed, right down to providing an interpreter to translate at their doctor visits. They also help coordinate after care. Following Jose's surgery, he required physical therapy at Sonoma Valley Hospital. Each session cost $85, more than Jose's family could afford, so Operation Access worked with the local hospital and got the rate reduced to $25 a session.
"For people like us, it's an enormous help, it's indescribable how much help they provide," Sandra Hernandez said.
Operation Access receives no government funding, its annual $1.4 million budget comes entirely from grants and private donations. Since it was established in 1993, it has offered access to more than $50 million in free health care and was recently awarded the Community Impact Health Care Hero award from the San Francisco Business Times.
The numbers don't mean as much to Jose, who is just happy to be working, raising his children and running again without pain. He was still in recovery and unable to participate in the annual Hit the Road Jack marathon last year, but got to watch his young sons run in the 2.2-mile children's race. He plans to be back on the marathon circuit soon, however.
"We were watching the San Francisco marathon on TV. and (Jose) got very emotional," Sandra said. "He wants to run it next year." Although, after the injury, he's hung up his cleats on the soccer field, instead choosing to coach his sons' team.
Learn more about Operation Access at www.operationaccess.org.