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Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
Stacey Gilmore cares for Elizabeth Rivera following her eye surgery during a free eye care surgery event at the Moran eye Center in Salt Lake City Utah Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013

SALT LAKE CITY  —  Elizabeth Rivera struggled with an eye problem for 16 years, enduring redness and extreme itchiness.

Despite her discomfort, she simply couldn't afford to get the procedure done to take care of her condition of pterygium, or what is commonly called surfer's eye.

Her life is now looking a bit brighter, even though she's a sporting a temporary eye patch, due to free surgery she received Saturday at the Moran Eye Center.

"I'm so happy," said Rivera, 34. "Now everything is different for me."

Rivera was among a dozen Utahns to receive free surgical procedures to correct eye problems in a second annual event in which doctors, medical residents, nurses and other staff at the center donate their time and expertise for people who lack insurance or any means to pay.

Besides Rivera, three other patients had surgery to address pterygium, a benign growth thought to be caused by exposure to sunlight, wind or sand, and several patients had cataracts removed.

The recipients were selected from the Fourth Street Clinic, the People's Clinic and other organizations, arriving early Saturday for all the preparatory work that goes with having surgery.

Rivera admitted she was a little nervous about having the surgery — it's not pleasant to conjure up images of sharp instruments poking around such soft tissue — but she had grown weary of the constant itchiness and redness.

Most patients were in and out of surgery in about 20 minutes and the recovery time was brief as well because the medication wears off fairly rapidly.

Dr. Brad Katz, a surgeon at the center since 1999, said from a medical standpoint, he doesn't view the dozen patients treated there Saturday in any unique way.

"I don't see them any differently than an insured person," Katz said. "The only difference is they don't have any money and they don't have insurance. But their medical problems are the same."

Katz is clearly passionate, however, about the ability to help those faced with the fearful prospect of losing vision.

He mentioned one woman who was operated on Saturday, a massage therapist who at 64 had vision so poor Katz said that, frankly, she shouldn't have been driving.

Dealing with diminished eyesight goes beyond having impaired visual acuity, but touches the ability to hold down the job people are used to and get around like they are comfortable with, Katz said.

"People are ebullient after surgery because it is a really scary thing to think of losing one's sight.  The whole thought of losing your vision is very frightening."

Katz was one of about 30 or so people at the center who stepped in to make the free eye surgery clinic a success, but he concedes it a service that is tough to offer.

"Every year it is getting harder and harder to do something like this," he said, pointing to medical reimbursement rates and mounting costs for health care providers that make "free services," increasingly challenging.

He and other staff at the clinic have been overseas and offered similar services and it is "so much easier," he said. "Legally and financially, there are a lot of barriers here."

He and the core group would like to offer free services more frequently — they have the skill and the desire — but so much more comes into play, such as the right setting, the proper surgical tools, an anesthesiologist and the list goes on and on.

"It's not like you can do this in your garage."

Yet despite some of those logistical barriers that have to be overcome,  Katz and the others are insistent at giving back.

"We're going all over the world and doing surgeries in places like Ghana," he said, so it makes sense to also take care of those here. "This is the right thing to do for our patients and the right thing to do for our community."

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