- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- CHEERS TO HEALTH! : After helping the Ugandan North American Medical Society, Rebeca Ponce is now helping a local doctor host a fundraiser for other worthy medical causes.
Few 24-year-olds have the persistence and confidence of Rebeca Ponce. A born-and-raised SLO native, Ponce decided she wanted to volunteer with Ugandan North American Medical Society (UNAMS).
“I didn’t take no for an answer,” she said. “I basically just asked them what I needed to get done in order to go to Uganda with the team.”
Numerous immunizations and a long conversation with her parents later, Ponce set out.
Volunteering with the medical team, she shadowed a neurosurgeon at the Bwera District Hospital in Kasese, Uganda.
The very first surgery Ponce observed was on a four-month-old baby with the most serious form of spina bifida, myelomeningocele. In this developmental birth defect, a cyst forms alongside a gap in the lower lumbar region of the spinal column. The spinal cord is pushed into the cyst, causing neurological defects.
Since the hospital lacked a pediatric table, the baby lay on an adult bed, cushions keeping him in place. During surgery, the cushions compressed his lungs, and he flat-lined. Luckily, the surgeons figured out what happened in time to save him.
Right then and there, exhausted from hours of merely watching, Ponce vowed to do what she could to procure supplies for the effort.
She contacted board members on the medical team and connected with Bruce Charash, a New York cardiologist, internal medicine doctor, and NYU professor. You wouldn’t think it humanly possible to add to his full plate, but he’s also founder of Doc to Dock.
Doc to Dock is the first commitment made by Bill Clinton for the Clinton Global Initiative Conference (CGI). Established in 2005, CGI brings leaders from around the globe together to generate solutions to the world’s urgent issues. Together, members implement specific and measurable “Commitments to Action.”
Charash suggested Doc to Dock at CGI because of the shocking amount of medical waste in this country.
“Seven thousand tons of medical supplies are wasted daily. With Doc to Dock, we are able to collect unused medical supplies that would otherwise be discarded,” Charash said. “Then we assess what the African or Haitian hospitals need. Establishing ground partners, we make sure the 40-foot container gets there. In Ghana, the Catholic church is our reliable partner; the archbishop himself receives the shipment.”
Charash hopes Doc to Dock, currently a seven-person team plus interns and volunteers, will expand and concentrate on specific locations.
The Noor Foundation
A humanitarian in the fullest, Ponce jumped on board when she heard Ahmad Nooristani was planning a free clinic called the SLO Noor Foundation. An internal medicine doctor at French Hospital and medical director of Sierra Vista, Nooristani wants to give back to his neighborhood.
Originally from Afghanistan, Nooristani’s family moved to the United States when he was 14.
“In Afghanistan we don’t have physicians, and here we have them but can’t see them because we’re uninsured,” he said. “What’s the difference?”
There are no obstacles at the Phillips Lane Clinic; anyone uninsured can come.
“I am seeing a growing need here, with around 30 percent of the county uninsured,” he said. “Millions of people per year are using emergency rooms as primary care, taking resources away from those in urgent need.”
SLO Noor Foundation will offer basic primary and gynecological care, lab testing, radiology, and referrals to other services. A “medical home” for adults with acute and chronic illnesses, routine supervision, and medication will be provided.
Focusing on preventative medicine, the clinic will offer lectures and workshops on depression, heart failure, and diabetes. A social worker will counsel and guide people to resources they qualify for. Serving as a center providing resources and connections, SLO Noor will bring various aspects of the community together, but the clinic faces one obstacle before it can open.
“The Department of Health says the ventilation system should be upgraded,” Nooristani said, “but the process will cost $10,000. We still have to find a donor or raise the money.”
Still, the space is ready to go: three exam rooms, a physical therapy room, and a painted mural.
The community has banded together to make the clinic a reality. More than 300 people have already volunteered, including physicians, specialists, nutritionists, nursing staff, and students.
“We know we have a problem with adequate medical care,” Nooristani said, “ and I have provided a solution that works through community support. I have not yet talked to anyone who has said ‘no.’ Everyone is stepping forward.”
Among some of the biggest supporters are Sierra Vista, French Hospital, Arroyo Grande Hospital, Campus Health, and Pacific Eye.
Ponce will bring together the efforts of SLO Noor and Doc to Dock with a fundraiser event in May, allowing the nonprofits to jointly work on a solution to healthcare dilemmas locally and around the world. On Saturday, May 21, the event kicks off with a hike (or run) up Cerro San Luis. An after-party in Mission Plaza includes music and a silent auction. Registration donations go straight to the nonprofits, with a goal of sending a 40-foot container of medical supplies to Bwera District Hospital.
Intern Alycia Kiley can be reached via Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at email@example.com.