We are very honored and excited to be a featured nonprofit in the San Jose Mercury News Wish Book this year!
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SAN MATEO — By the time Jorge Castillo Funez was diagnosed with diabetes this past December, his condition was severe. Without twice-daily injections of insulin, he would soon die.
However, an obstacle blocked the young man’s path to recovery: an intense fear of needles that Funez traces back to a childhood trauma in El Salvador.
Unable to perform the injections himself, Funez relied on the staff of the Free Clinic of San Mateo, a health center run by nonprofit Samaritan House that provides care for people who lack adequate insurance. He visited the clinic every day for more than a month so medical assistant Yesenia Hernandez could administer the insulin, then teach Funez’s girlfriend how to do it.
“I have never been treated the way they treated me here,” said Funez, who works as a hotel housekeeper. “They saved my life.”
Funez, 32, is one of roughly 1,200 low-income people who visit the clinic every year. Many have slipped through the cracks in state and federal health insurance plans, failing to qualify for Medi-Cal or the Obama administration’s new insurance mandate. Others have insurance but still struggle to pay for medication.
“We’re the safety net for the safety net,” said Sharon Petersen, director of operations for Samaritan House, which runs a second Free Clinic in Redwood City. The clinics benefit not only the clients, she said, but the broader health care system: When people with chronic conditions get preventive care, they make fewer trips to the emergency room.
The clinics provide a wide range of services, from basic care to neurology and orthopedics, despite having fewer than a dozen full-time staff members. Most of the clinics’ several dozen doctors and dentists volunteer their time.
Samaritan House, which gets most of its funding from private donors, will spend roughly $820,000 this year to operate the clinics. But there is still a critical need for medical supplies and pharmaceuticals, including the insulin provided to Funez and other diabetic patients. Wish Book readers can help by donating $6,000, which covers a month’s supply for both facilities.
Diabetes is the most common chronic illness among patients at the San Mateo clinic, Hernandez said, though most of the patients are not insulin-dependent. Many of the clinic patients are Latino, a group with higher rates of diabetes than the general population. Clients don’t have enough money to buy fresh, healthful food — fast food is much less expensive — and often face linguistic or cultural barriers.
Funez’s father was a diabetic, but his family didn’t know that until after he died. Doctors determined that his fatal heart attack in 2004 was brought about by untreated diabetes.
The information shocked and scared Funez, who came to America when he was 20 and speaks halting English, but he still didn’t understand much about the disease — or that he was genetically predisposed to it.
He continued eating fast food and drinking soda — “mas Coke,” he recalled with a sheepish smile. In October 2013, he developed a suite of diabetic symptoms: blurry vision, thirst, frequent urination and unintended weight loss.
Now, a year later, he is looking and feeling much better. He eats less fried food and more salads, and has eliminated his soda habit. Besides regular checkups with an endocrinologist, Funez has visited clinic nutritionists, optometrists and dentists.
But he’s still afraid of needles. Insulin shots make him cringe, and he faints every time his blood is drawn. Funez said he developed the phobia after he witnessed a needle break off in a classmate’s arm during a round of vaccinations at his elementary school. The boy’s arm later had to be amputated, Funez said.
To keep his diabetes under control, Funez will need to master his fear. Hernandez said she worries about what would happen if his girlfriend weren’t around. But she’s determined.
“My goal,” Hernandez said, “is to one day see him inject himself.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about Samaritan House’s free dental and medical clinics, go to https://samaritanhousesanmateo.org and click on “What We Do.”
Your donation to Samaritan House helps individuals like Jorge receive the medical treatment needed to live a full and healthy life. Read his story in the Wish Book and please consider a donation to help patients like Jorge. Click here to make a donation.