Project Access brings lifesaving medical care to the uninsured
Dr. David Najafi, Ophthalmologist and Eye Surgeon
Maria Saavedra noticed a red clot in her eye. Objects started getting blurry: street signs on the way to her job at a fast food restaurant, numbers on money, faces at her prayer group at Mission San Luis Rey. The Oceanside woman found a community clinic, where she got medicine—and grave news. Though she was just in her early forties, diabetes was stealing her eyesight. The only hope was specialized lasers or surgery. Saavedra had worked full-time for the past five years, but couldn’t save for an eye doctor on minimum wage. Originally from Guadalajara, she didn’t qualify for Medi-Cal or other government aid. Saavedra’s world got darker and darker, until all she could see were vague shapes and traces of light.
“Right now I can barely see,” says Saavedra. “I know when it’s daylight because I can see the light. To walk outside I have to hold on to a person. I cannot leave the house or work. I get help to eat. I get help to bathe myself. It’s sad when you have to depend on other people.”
Saavedra has no husband or children, and her parents have passed away, so a longtime friend took her in. From her small Oceanside home, she gets by on the charity of parishioners who donate whatever they can: spare change, a five-dollar bill, maybe a bowl of soup or a can of beans. But an astonishing gift came in 2013. The community clinic in Oceanside referred Saavedra to an ophthalmologist specializing in retinal tears, who volunteered to treat her for free. La Mesa surgeon David Najafi has restored vision for many diabetic patients—if they contact him early enough. He says Saavedra’s retinas are bleeding and have detached in both eyes.
“This is one of the worst cases of end-stage diabetic eye problems anyone could encounter,” says Najafi. “Oftentimes those who don’t have access to care try to weather the small signs. They try to push through it and keep working.”
Najafi sees pro bono patients every week in his private practice, Alliance Retina Consultants. He laments that there’s little chance of dramatic gains when care is delayed but “one still deserves that chance.” Project Access San Diego is that chance, the only program in the county giving free specialty care to uninsured people who have no other resources. Since one in five people in San Diego is uninsured, the need is great. The work can be tedious and unfruitful. But sometimes, not uncommonly, miracles happen.
“We had a woman who was totally blind and had been in a diabetic coma for a month,” says Barbara Mandel, executive director of the San Diego County Medical Society Foundation, which oversees Project Access. “Our doctor did the cataract surgery and asked, ‘What colors do you see?’ She said she saw black. About five minutes later he said, ‘Now what do you see?’ and she said, ‘I see your face!’ Even telling you this story, I get tingles up and down my spine.”
Project Access has amassed a burgeoning group of 639 physicians, including Najafi, who treat all kinds of ailments without charging a cent. Mandel and her colleagues recently arranged surgery and treatment for three separate people diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer. “All of those folks are back to health,” Mandel says. “These are lives saved. It’s amazing.”
She also speaks of a bellman whose hernia surgery enabled him to return to work lifting suitcases with ease, a single mother who worried she had cancer but was instead properly diagnosed and treated for diverticulitis, and a chef fired for psoriasis who got the right medication and another cooking job to support his family.
Mandel says Project Access asks physicians for help, and hardly anyone turns them down. They nominated Najafi alongside a handful of other above-and-beyond physicians for awards this year. Najafi won a Healthcare Hero Award from the Grossmont Healthcare District for 15 years of volunteerism, but he insists he’s just one of thousands who volunteer to preserve vision, hearts, and kidneys, “the things that bring humanity and dignity.”
To date, Project Access has helped more than 3,000 uninsured patients, arranged almost 1,000 pro bono surgeries, and—the most remarkable statistic—saved 26 lives.
Najafi feels boundless excitement when a blind person’s vision is restored. But he’s sustained by those who walk through his doors while they can still see. Those interventions are easier, cheaper, and more successful.
“When confronted with an individual who is destitute, and I can serve in a small way to make their burden somewhat lighter, it is really one of the most defining moments of my life. I’m always humbled by it.”
After two surgeries, Saavedra can recognize objects a little better but not enough to cook, drive, or work. Najafi will try again. “Aside from his time, he treats me very well,” Saavedra says. “He’s very kind. He makes me very comfortable. I have faith with him that I’m going to get my vision back.”