San Francisco surgery program marks 20 years of providing free services 

Doug Grey and William Schecter started Operation Access while meeting in the Mel's Diner parking lot on Geary 20 years ago. - COURTESY PHOTOS
  • Courtesy Photos
  • Doug Grey and William Schecter started Operation Access while meeting in the Mel's Diner parking lot on Geary 20 years ago.

Two decades ago at the Mel’s Drive-In on Geary Boulevard, two doctors began meeting weekly to discuss how empty hospitals could be used on weekends to provide health care for people in need. Eventually, the surgeons sketched out a business plan on a napkin.

Since then, Doug Grey and William Schecter’s rough concept has become a solid reality that has provided free surgeries for thousands of people across the Bay Area.

The road between Mel’s and the operating room is paved with volunteers, including Paul Hofmann, a doctor who helped turn the idea into a business model and eventually into the nonprofit Operation Access.

When Grey and Schecter first talked about serving low-income people who needed surgeries, it was in the early 1990s, when then-President Bill Clinton was working on health care reform. But it also was a time when people who had jobs but couldn’t afford care were being forced to decide between minor surgeries and paying their bills, Schecter said. Grey described the problem as the hourglass of health care coverage, with the center being squeezed out.

More than two years after the duo’s first talk about the issue at a conference for surgeons, Operation Access was able to persuade Kaiser Permanente San Francisco to allow it to run a pilot program and operate on 29 people.

Schecter said that at the time, there was no program that allowed doctors and nurses to volunteer for the underserved in their communities.

“It was easier to go to Uganda than in our own backyard, given there was no structure,” he said.

After a successful pilot program, Operation Access was able to grow to six Bay Area counties with dozens of participating medical facilities. The doctors all say their work, along with that of a multitude of other volunteers, has merely created an environment in which other doctors are able to give back.

“Most people went to medical school and to nursing school to help,” said Schecter, who’s a surgeon at San Francisco General Hospital.

Grey, a recently retired surgeon, said the program is a framework for pent-up demand from medical personnel who want to help in their communities.

The doctors, however, also say the success of the program, which will have its 20th annual event at Kaiser on Saturday, is bittersweet.

“We all wish Operation Access would be unnecessary,” Schecter said.

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