Organizers of a massive clinic in Los Angeles offered people free medical services in Exposition Park before the event wrapped up Sunday. Just like the Remote Area Medical clinic a year-and-a-half ago, this one drew thousands of people that needed care but couldn’t afford it. Doctors, dentists, optometrists and even meditation counselors treated uninsured and under-insured patients.
On the first day of the clinic at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, dental director Dr. Roger Fieldman had his hands full.
“As you can imagine, there are numerous little problems that we’re trying to put out, these little fires, and get organized," Fieldman said.
A large event like this is bound to hit a few snags. "A lot of things are put away in boxes," Fieldman said. "We have a lot of volunteers who really don’t have a dental background, so things are getting put places they shouldn’t be put.”
Fieldman and dozens of other medical personnel scrambled to prepare. They knew to expect a flood of patients.
“Patients are being seen," Fieldman emphasized. "People are finding the instruments and the supplies that they need. We’d like it to go more efficiently.”
As Fieldman predicted, the process improved. By late afternoon, almost every dental chair was occupied.
Dentists and hygienists cleaned teeth, applied fillings and made referrals. Despite previous reports that too few dentists had volunteered, organizers said enough showed up to handle the flow.
On the other end of the arena, Dr. Charles Best was equally busy, although not as many patients visited his section. That’s not to say the medical problems he tends to aren't just as important.
“The problems that we see in our field, whether it’s erectile dysfunction or urinary dysfunction, is not something patients like to sort of volunteer," Best said.
Best heads the urology department at L.A. County-USC Medical Center.
“We can do rectal exams and screen for prostate cancer, at least for abnormalities there," he adds. "Information is really our goal for the patient here.”
Though this was the first time Best has worked at a clinic this big in the Southland, he has volunteered under daunting circumstances. Best said he was the first urologist to visit Haiti a year after the magnitude 7 earthquake hit. He traveled there as a member of a USC medical expedition.
“Haiti was a phenomenal experience," Best said. "You know, there, same thing, we had a clinic, people lined up at the door, you see as many as you can, you do what you can as far as exams, you prescribe what you might have available to you.”
About 800 medical personnel volunteered for several days at the L.A. Sports Arena. They helped about 5,000 patients — just a small fraction of the more than 2 million uninsured people who live in Los Angeles County.
Many of the people that got care at the Sports Arena came from miles away, waited for hours and said it was worth it.
“It is a cry for help because if we can’t come here, where are we going to go?” said Stephanie Fletcher. Fletcher needed a tooth pulled. She sat with others in the stands as she waited to climb into one of the many dental chairs in rows on the arena floor.
Fletcher said the clinic organized by the non-profit group CareNow was about more than a teeth cleaning. “Because as you know tooth decay and other things, if we don’t take care of that now, it can lead to more severe problems that can affect us later on," Fletcher said. "So this community, we need this event here. We need these volunteers. We need these doctors. Because there are a lot of one-income households, and if that person is not healthy and strong, what are the children going to do?”
Fletcher and many others here are out of work, and they’re out of choices when it comes to taking care of their eyes or their teeth. That’s because in a round of budget cuts a couple of years ago, Medi-Cal — the state’s low-income health insurance — stopped covering dental and vision care.
“They do not cover any kind of dental what so ever," said Corey Barnes, 33. Barnes doesn’t hesitate to smile, even though his front teeth are missing. They got knocked out eight months ago in a motorcycle accident, so he looked forward to seeing a dentist.
Brenda Turner got her first vision exam in years, reciting letters as she looked at that standard old eye chart that starts with that big letter “E” stick on the arena wall several feet away. "I found out I was nearsighted and farsighted. So I have the best of both worlds," Turner said, laughing.
She plans to get glasses. "I am on my way to put in my prescription and find a cute little frame. I am going to be looking good and seeing everything."
Turner said it was a problem on a daily basis. "I was going to the grocery and picking up glasses, and they just weren’t good enough. So now I have a prescription just for me and everything is going to be all right. And, oh, right now I’m unemployed. I need to see to get my job, so I’ll do anything from change lightbulbs to chase dust bunnies away. Doesn’t matter, as long as I’m working."
Turner and nearly all of the patients signed up with local clinics so they’ll have a place to get followup care for what they need now, and ongoing care for what they’ll need after that.