From day one, Surgery on Sunday Louisville has been saving lives. Literally. During SOSL’s first ever surgical event at Jewish Hospital in 2013, SOSL Volunteer Medical Director Erica Sutton, MD found and completely removed a patient’s cancer. “We were awestruck at the idea that we’d helped cure cancer. For that one person in the community, we were going to make a difference in their health and life,” said Sutton. In fact, in its first year, the non-profit organization discovered and cured three cases of colorectal cancer.
How it began
Initially, SOSL began as a partnership with the Colon Cancer Prevention Project with the goal of expanding access to quality healthcare by providing free colonoscopies. “Kentucky’s incidence of colon cancer is one of the highest in the nation,” said Sutton, who also serves as Chief of Surgery at Jewish Hospital and Assistant Dean at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. The nonprofit quickly expanded, however to include outpatient procedures as well. “We partnered with area hospitals and surgical facilities who agreed to let us utilize their endoscopy and operating room suites on Sunday, when they aren’t being used,” said the medical director.
The model and name for Surgery on Sunday came from Lexington, and Sutton met with SOSL volunteers and staff there as well as hospital administrators and mission departments from area hospitals before founding one in Louisville. She discussed helping uninsured and under-insured patients get needed screenings and surgeries. “We knew there would be barriers, but at the end of the conversation, we said, ‘Yes, this is the right thing to do in our community.’” Some of Sutton’s lawyer friends had some initial roll-over funds from a previous nonprofit, and Surgery on Sunday Louisville was born.
Individuals who are eligible for assistance from SOSL are within 250 percent of the federal poverty limit and are uninsured, or have healthcare and medical expenses that exceed 10 percent of their annual household income. Referrals come from 34 unique medical homes, most often from local family community health centers and clinics.
Additionally, Surgery on Sunday Louisville works diligently to empower individuals to become advocates of their own health, by helping patients learn how to navigate the healthcare system, and through programs that educate people on the importance of timely health screenings (such as cancer-preventing colonoscopies).
Since its beginnings five years ago, SOSL has touched more than 300 lives with their monthly Sunday surgical events. “Our events have attracted over 500 volunteers – surgeons, nurses, lawyers, administrators, environmental services, registration desk employees. Our model is that everyone in the community has a role,” said Sutton. In fact, SOSL has only three paid employees: an executive director, clinical coordinator and program coordinator, Jordan Licata.
Licata, who evolved from a valued volunteer to a full-time employee in August 2017, explained the SOSL name could be a misnomer. “In addition to our monthly Sunday surgical events, we have an add-on model,” he said. “With patients who have urgent cases that are symptomatic, we want to make sure they are receiving time-appropriate care, so we partner with facilities who let us be added to the end of a weekday surgery schedule, so the patient doesn’t have to wait for SOSL’s next monthly Sunday event. Licata said SOSL does a variety of outpatient procedures beyond endoscopy, such as eye surgeries for cataracts, tonsillectomies, hernia repair, orthopedics and gallbladder removal as well as biopsies.
Patients who fall through the cracks
Licata explained how SOSL helps underserved patients who might otherwise fall through the cracks. “We help with patients who are falling through the public care assistance gap. Medicaid covers only up to 138 percent of the federal poverty limit. Health care is expensive and we know that services can be a burden for families well beyond that, so we cover up to 250 percent. We catch that patient population who aren’t eligible for Medicaid because they have too much income, or don’t have status as a resident in the United States,” Licata said. Of 250 annual referrals, Licata said SOSL provided care for about 100 in 2017. The organization has capacity to assist about 125 people a year.
Grant funding and fundraising for SOSL make it possible to offer screenings and surgeries for free, according to Sutton. “We were the recent recipient of a Humana employee grant, and we have upcoming special events; a Dancing with the Prospect Stars event next month and a 5K Race on June 1,” she said.
Sutton said her volunteer surgical services for SOSL have given her as much, if not more, than she has given. “One way that SOSL has impacted me is it has helped me find my purpose. I love being a surgeon but it is not without its challenges, hard days and frustrating moments.” Sutton said on one of those days, her work at an SOSL surgical event came to her rescue.
“As the patients were meeting before surgery, they just really thanked us for being there and I thought, ‘I am in the right place – this is part of my purpose.’ At a time when I was at risk for burnout, SOSL helped me find again my purpose and passion for this work. I couldn’t be more grateful to have been saved in that way by this organization.”