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RIP Jamie Garcia, a health hero in Pomona, 2010 California Woman of the Year

The late Dr. Jamie Garcia, founder Pomona Community Health Center.
The late Dr. Jamie Garcia, founder Pomona Community Health Center. Courtesy Pomona Community Health Center

Dr. Jamie Garcia, MD, devoted champion of health care for the poor and founder of the Pomona Community Health Center, passed away at 5:30 pm on July 27 after a 22-month battle with ovarian cancer. She died peacefully in her home, next to her partner of 15 years, Sue Verreault. She was 52.

Dr. Jamie, as her patients knew her, possessed a remarkable and graceful warrior soul, and her life story is an extraordinary one. At 16, quick-witted and a bit rebellious, the native Angelino passed a high school proficiency exam and dropped out to become a professional musician. She had gigs throughout Los Angeles, aired videos on VH1, and garnered the attention of major record labels.

When she was in her late 20s, her friends convinced her to go to college. She was accepted into UCLA, and graduated with a degree in philosophy and ethics. Later, she enrolled in medical school at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she would find her calling as a tireless advocate for access to health care for everyone, regardless of means.

Jamie began her Family Medicine residency at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center in 2000. There, she was moved by what she saw as an enormous need for an alternative to emergency room care for low-income patients with chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. Dr. Garcia partnered with the LA County Department of Public Health to operate the original Pomona Community Health Center, a two-room free clinic serving the homeless, uninsured, and underinsured in east LA County. Seeing that the needs of the community were much greater than her tiny clinic could serve, in 2002, Jamie began the long process of planning, funding, and building a greatly expanded clinic. She had no formal training or experience with such a large project, assembled a board and staff, sketched out each exam room and calculated the cost of materials, planned budgets for doctors, created partnerships to secure a location, and raised over $1.4 million. When the crucial seed money was awarded on April 1, 2010, she announced proudly on her Facebook page, "We're buildin' a free clinic! We have liftoff!"

Five months later, Jamie was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ovarian cancer but was determined to complete the new, expanded clinic and live to see it open. On May 16, 2011, she oversaw the groundbreaking ceremony for the new clinic's building on Holt Avenue, in The Village, a "mall" of social services for low income LA residents. She worked feverishly all through her many months of chemo, bringing her laptop into treatment rooms and hospital beds. "I can't wait to meet the first patient," she told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin at the groundbreaking.

The new 12-room clinic opened its doors on July 9, 2012, and is expected to serve 24,000 uninsured, homeless, and underinsured residents in the Pomona area this year. But three days earlier, Dr. Garcia had been admitted to the hospital where she learned she had a large inoperable tmor, and was advised to prepare for hospice care.

Jamie was known for challenging the system. In medical school. she wrote a paper about why the practice of keeping residents overly tired was one that should be changed. According to a memorial post on her Facebook page, when Jamie was a resident at Pomona Valley Hospital, she occasionally stole supplies and took them to the streets to treat the homeless. During her last year in residency, she heard of a homeless man living under a nearby freeway bridge who was in dire need of medical care. She crawled under the bridge herself to treat him, and convinced him to come with her back to the hospital, saving his life. She enrolled him in a treatment program for alcoholics, after which he remained sober.

When Inland Empire magazine, which had selected her as one of the top doctors in the region in 2011, asked Jamie how she would improve the health care system, she responded that there should be a limit on the number of patients a doctor is allowed to take on, and appointments of a half hour should be the norm. And how to relieve stress? "Prevent stress," was Jamie's approach. "Take time for yourself. Go to the gym or for a walk. Don't sweat the small stuff."

Dr. Garcia was named Woman of the Year in 2010 by the California State Assembly. She was recognized as a Hospital Hero in 2010 by the National Health Foundation, and her clinic has been recognized by the California State Assembly, National Project Homeless Connect, and the House of Ruth Domestic Violence Shelter. The evening before she died, several doctors from her clinic gathered at Jamie's home and agreed to hang her numerous recognitions on an otherwise-blank wall in the new clinic. "But I don't know, honestly, if there's room for all of them," noted one doctor.

Donations in Jamie's memory can be made to the Pomona Community Health Center: 1450 E Holt Avenue, Pomona, CA 91767.

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