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Surgical Saturday Is Mutually Enriching for Both Patients and Volunteers

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By Zen Zheng, St. Luke's Health Marketing and Communications

For more than a year, Sarah Mirelles' bulging belly had made her look pregnant and the past few months its growth had picked up pace. Yet unbeknownst to the casual observer is the pain she had endured each day.

“It hindered me from doing the things I love with my kids, especially swimming,” said Mirelles, 35. Instead of a pregnancy, Mirelles was suffering from umbilical hernias – swelling around her navel that caused pains when she moved around or listed objects.

A full-time college student raising four young children while caring for her elderly father, Mirelles had no insurance nor savings for her treatment – until William Fisher, MD, a general surgeon at St. Luke's health–Baylor St. Luke`s Medical Center, came to the aid.

On October 1, Dr. Fisher surgically repaired Mirelles' hernias at no cost to her through Surgical Saturday, a charitable program collaborated among St. Luke's and Gateway to Care, a Houston health care advocacy group for financially-struggling residents.

“My family and I are beyond grateful. We couldn't believe someone would do this for me,” said Mirelles.

Mirelles was among five recipients of pro bono surgeries that day.

Dr. Fisher was joined by fellow Baylor St. Luke's surgeon Georgia Holder-Haynes, MD, and some 50 clinical, spiritual and administrative volunteers performing hernia repairs and gallbladder removals for the patients without insurance or money for the treatments.

This was the second Surgical Saturday held at Baylor St. Luke&'s this year. During the March 5 event, six patients received free services.

Bridging a Gap

Surgical Saturday was established to bridge a gap in care for underserved populations, said Dick Nye, Gateway&'s navigation services manager.

Indigent patients are referred to Gateway by federally qualified health centers and community clinics with a charitable program. Gateway picks about half of a dozen patients for each Surgical Saturday event based on financial and medical qualifications.

“This program wouldn't have been possible without the partnership from the health care community like St. Luke's,” he said. “The passion and enthusiasm of all of the St. Luke's volunteers to help has been life-changing to our indigent patients. We`re deeply appreciative of so many who donated their time and services on the weekend.”

James Suliburk, MD, a general surgeon who participated in the March 5 Surgical Saturday, said the volunteers all believed in serving others.

“Surgical Saturday is a short moment in our lives, but it leads to a lifelong health improvement for our patients who aren't fortunate to have insurance,” he said. “It's a moment for us to give back to the community and do what we really enjoy doing – taking care of patients. We all believe a life worth living is a life with service.”

Caring for the Whole Person

Rev. Jim Stockton, a St. Luke's staff chaplain, said St. Luke's participation follows a CHI mission to care for the poor.

“Our work particularly emphasizes God's special attention to those in the most acute need, and we strive to support them medically, social and spiritually,” Stockton said, noting that during Surgical Saturday, the patients were surrounded by our medical and spiritual staff. “We let them know that both spiritual and emotion support were available to them to round out their medical care. This way, we take care of the whole patient.”

Toni Rios, Gateway's director of development, said clients referred to Gateway for help are under “desperate circumstances.”

“They are desperate because not only can they not afford insurance but also they&'re in pain,” she said. “It's a difficult struggle to take care of themselves, take care of their children and try to keep their jobs.”

Prolonged lack of care often resulted in the patients visits to already crowded emergency rooms, she noted.

“Surgical Saturday is a small program, but its impact on their life is huge,” Nye said. “It removes the patients from their difficult situations so they become healthy, happier and productive again for their families and communities.”

For both the patients and volunteers, Surgical Saturday is a mutually enriching experience, Nye said.

“The volunteers share the same excitement about being able to provide the service and feel the appreciation from the patients and their families deeply rewarding,” Nye said. “There are a lot of hugs, smiles and tears as they said goodbye.”

Mirelles is excited at the idea of getting back into the water with her children.

“The surgery meant so much to me and my family,” she said. “I can&'t wait to be an active mom and swim with my kids again.”


  1. St. Luke's Health-Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center medical staff transport Sarah Mirelles to the operating room for her procedure.
  2. St. Luke's Health-Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center medical staff pray for the patients before their procedures.
(Photos by Gus Salinas, St. Luke&'s Health) ###

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