By Steve Flairty
It’s a crisp early Sunday morning and inside the Lexington Surgery Center on the first floor, energetic people are dressed in surgery garb, mostly bluish in color. They trade engaging smiles and friendly banter, all the while alert and cognizant of what their training has taught them: to be a focused team partner.
There are surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, administrators, a custodian or two, and even teenage volunteers. And of course, there are the patients, a tad nervous but hopeful for a new lease on life. The riveting action is like bumper cars with no bumps, a traffic jam with no jams. Dr. Andy Moore, though not on surgery duty this morning, saunters through the maze, saying a million hellos, a joyful glint in his eyes. He knows the drill well because he started the whole thing.
As dawn breaks, Surgery on Sunday and its goodwill spirit abounds.
SOS began in 2005, making Moore’s decade-long dream a reality. The program has performed a multitude of free outpatient services to, according to its website, “income-eligible individuals and families who do not have health insurance and are not eligible for federal or state insurance.”
Approximately 5,500 patients have been served by a current pool of about 500 volunteers, including about 50 each of surgeons and anesthesiologists. Many of the volunteers travel to Lexington from distant areas of Kentucky and sometimes beyond the state borders. The patients are predominately Kentuckians, but a few have come from other states, including a man from South Carolina with family in Lexington who had skin cancers removed, putting him back on the path to continue his self-employed business. There is a waiting list of about 500 patients — a challenge for SOS — but with an added, similar but smaller program Saint Joseph Hospital started recently, the list has worked downward from 1,500 in the last few years.
“Our patients are good, hard-working people. They’ve done all the right things, but they have no insurance because they’ve fallen through the cracks or have just had some bad luck,” Moore said. “We just want SOS to do a little for them so that they can stand alone and start taking care of their families and move their lives ahead.”
While waiting for his wife, Michelle, to receive treatment on this day, Lexington resident Matthew Sweat talked about having lipomas, a type of benign tumor, removed from his head and back previously through SOS. “It was a great experience,” he said, “done right and with no complications.”
Cody Adams is happy to be working 50 hours a week as a diesel mechanic, but not long ago he was sidetracked with gall bladder attacks. He found himself frequently getting ill and having to leave work. At the time, he hadn’t worked for the company long enough to receive health insurance, and he couldn’t afford to pay for the surgery. Hearing of SOS, Adams applied for help and soon was treated. “They were real nice to work with, and Dr. [Paul] Kearney found something [a medical complication] that others hadn’t before,” said Adams. “I appreciate SOS so much.”
The most common surgeries are gall bladder and hernia operations along with colonoscopies. Skin cancers and orthopedic issues also are treated, along with vision problems and ear, nose and throat disorders. Though the procedures are outpatient in scope, many skilled hands are needed for effective care. “To do one surgery, it takes about 10 people,” said Shirley Ramsey, the clinical director of SOS. “Their working together is truly magical.”
Ramsey emphasized that the volunteer members of the Lexington Surgery Center staff are “paramount” to the smooth operation in the use of the facilities. One is LSC custodian James Calloway, who has missed only three SOS days in eight years. “James is here at 5 in the morning. He opens up the whole facility,” said Ramsey. “If you need something, find James.”
Paul Fister works for a pharmaceutical company and volunteers regularly for the monthly endeavor. He already knew many of the medical employees when he was invited several years ago to come to a morning of SOS. “I got real excited and have been coming since that time,” said Fister, who is classified ancillary support. “I stay until the last patient leaves and do whatever they ask me to do.”
Holly Moore, a volunteer recovery nurse, said all the medical staff members “want to be here, and lots of the doctors do [free service] during the week.”
Moore’s passion for serving the underserved likely comes from the influence of his father, now deceased, who was the first plastic surgeon to practice in Lexington. He recalled that he never knew his father to turn down treatment for anybody who couldn’t pay and that he would sometimes “accept a chicken or apples—or anything of value to pay for their services.” The father also had a positive effect on two of Andy’s brothers, surgeons who are part of SOS. Andy’s son, along with his mother and aunt, also are active volunteere.
For years, the junior Moore, also a plastic surgeon, dreamed and carried on discussions about a program like SOS, but it was only a dream until he had a chance meeting with a grant writer. “She told me she could get me the money, and she did — $235,000,” Moore said. Though still a logistical challenge, in 2005 SOS was on its way to being a viable program. And because of its unique success, it soon received positive publicity both locally and nationally, including from CNN and People magazine.
The Sand Gap Baptist Church in nearby Lawrenceburg graciously prepares a breakfast meal for those involved. “We have a bevy of individuals with different skill sets … here to serve for the same cause, people from all different faiths,” said SOS board member Rabbi Marc Kline of the Temple Adath Israel, Lexington. “It is a good message for the world.” His wife and daughter also participate.
Dr. Gary Bray, an orthopedic surgeon, has been an SOS volunteer since it began, dealing with such issues as carpal tunnel syndrome and minor fractures. On this day, his daughters Abby and Anna are helping, too. “A lot of people talk about the doctors volunteering, but I think the help of the nurses and technicians deserves recognition,” he said. “They’re here all day.”
Bernice Cord, a registered nurse first assistant, commutes regularly from Maysville, paying her own travel expenses. “She’s awesome, never misses. We adore her,” said Laura Ebert, the SOS director.
Two paid individuals work in the SOS office — Ebert and Terri Cline, the client coordinator. They know firsthand the appreciation so many of the patients feel toward the program’s efforts. “We have one lady who every year at Christmas sends us a money order for $50,” said Cline. “She probably saved all year for the $50. Laura and I just melt.”
Many others send cards of gratitude after their surgeries, noted Cline, and are “so thankful that they could have their pain stopped or that we could get them to walk again.” Podiatrist volunteer Dr. Chuck Zimmerman spoke of the patient gratitude for SOS “harkening back to an age when doctors were more respected.” He said much of modern medicine is “number-driven, but most doctors want to help people.”
Volunteer nurse Sue Gaines, another who started in 2005, was a part of the program “during the talking stages and when it was carefully being planned out,” she said. “You could feel the electricity and the excitement [then] and it’s amazing to see that same atmosphere every time.” According to Gaines, much of that enthusiasm can be attributed to the charismatic leadership of the person who founded SOS. “Dr. Moore is a hero in the truest sense of the term. He is responsible for changing countless lives for the better: those of the recipients, those of the care administrators, and those of the volunteers.”
Those closely involved with SOS would like to see new programs started in other areas. “We’d like to have at least one in every state,” Cline said. That goal may be a long way from fruition, but there has been some progress. Lexington’s Central Baptist Hospital also decided to start a version of SOS. “One of our weaknesses is in the area of gynecology, so Central Baptist fills a niche,” Moore said.
Collaborating hospitals in Louisville started an SOS-type program spearheaded by Dr. Erica Sutton after her group visited and received consultation about a start-up. They are offering only colonoscopies initially. “We are looking to involve all the hospitals and facilities in Louisville,” Sutton said. “We hope, in three to four years, to have SOS well-established in Louisville.”
Interested parties from outside Kentucky—including Omaha, Neb., and Dallas—recently have communicated with Moore and others on the staff. Moore lets those most interested know he’s willing to travel to their location to talk with them. SOS plans to start an endowment fund that will be used as seed money to launch new programs. An information template, much like a start-up handbook, is available.
Carley Schroering is a pre-med major who has volunteered in both the SOS office and on the floor with the medical staff. She recalled a patient who dealt with a serious hernia condition. “All I did was talk to him,” she said with a huge smile. Later, while waiting for a ride outside on a hospital loading dock, the youthful Schroering saw the man being brought out in a wheelchair. “He called over to me and said, ‘Thank you so much for everything you did. You made my experience great.’ It was moving … and it was good for me and good for him.”
This story by Steve Flairty is reprinted from the October 2013 issue of Kentucky Monthly.
Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and author of five books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and four in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author, including his most recent, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. He will soon be a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)
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