Free Medical: Filling the gap

At the back of one of the orderly lines formed outside the Los Angeles Sports Arena early Friday morning, a middle-aged man suddenly began twitching uncontrollably. After falling backward, his eyes rolled behind his eyelids, and drool formed around his dry, cracked lips. As onlookers screamed for help, the man was soon surrounded by several volunteers from the McCormick Ambulance emergency response team.

This man was one of many patients seeking free health care last weekend at an event held by Care Harbor L.A. and sponsored by L.A. Care Health Plan.

“Lucky that he was here,” said Nicholas Cowing, one of the paramedic volunteers who responded to the emergency. “That’s why I love doing this. It feels amazing to be able to help people. I know from personal experience how much an emergency can cost, and how bad a seizure can be, with patients biting their tongues. I’m just glad that we were here today.”

According to Care Harbor L.A.’s website, the event’s goal was to “provide free medical, dental and vision services to the uninsured, underinsured and underserved in our community.”

The event’s policy required patients to choose between vision and dental care, but allowed all patients to access either the general or women’s clinic.

Betty Lucas, director of EyeCare America, a public service foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, was present at the event to assist in offering at least a quick prescreening with eye care specialists for those who chose dental over vision care.

“My mom lost her sight to glaucoma,” Lucas said. “With early detection, she could have slowed down the progression of the disease and perhaps—like my aunt—still had her sight at 80 years. That’s why I do this—to help other people save their eyes, because vision is key.”

Volunteers such as Richard Baker, a medical doctor from UCLA and the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, worked to prescreen the many patients lined up at the booths approximately every 30 minutes throughout the day.

“I feel fortunate—who I am, where I grew up, what I do,” said Baker. “There are a lot less fortunate people and I have an opportunity to do something special here. It’s my first year volunteering here, but I’ll be back next year.”

Many volunteers like Jasmine Helu, a 22-year-old medical assistant student at Infotech Career College, assisted with examinations at the event.

“I’ve been volunteering since I was 10 years old,” Helu said, who assisted with sight reading exams. “My parents would just take me. I’m here because this is my family tradition; we help others. I’m lucky I’ve never had to struggle too much.”

For others who have had to face hardships, like Mario and Sandra Avila, the event provided a way to receive care that would otherwise have been too expensive.

The couple’s 10-year-old daughter Joseline received her first pair of reading glasses at the event, choosing a pair of bright purple frames from the hundreds offered by Care Harbor L.A.

“I am a stay-at-home mom, and Mario works at a car wash,” said Avila. “We could never have afforded this. She has been complaining that the words are blurry when she reads for a year now, but we couldn’t do anything until now. I am so thankful.”

On the opposite side of the arena, neat rows of reclined chairs were laid out where patients waited to receive free dental work.

“I prayed when I left the house, ‘please, God, may I get my implant today,’” said 52-year-old Ismat Youus, who wore a purple head wrap to hide her mouth and her missing front tooth.

Sonya Barley, 46, covered her mouth with her hand when she laughed to hide her four missing teeth.

“My ex pushed me out of a moving car on the freeway and I lost some teeth,” Barley said. “He is in jail now. I forgive him, but I sure would love to get my smile back.”

Carl D. Werts, who has been a dentist for over 30 years, was one of the many medical professionals practicing at the event to “give back.”

“Today I will do extractions and teeth cleanings, mostly,” Werts said. “Only 10 percent or less of all patients here today will get partials, which are cosmetic implants that allow them to look good, but will need to eventually be replaced with more permanent ones. It’s the first year that we have tried this, so hopefully, if it’s efficient, we can help more people next year.”

Eddie Henderson, 40, was not able to receive a partial, but he did receive a free teeth cleaning.

“I also got my flu shot, and a lot of new information from all these booths they have here,” Henderson said.

Darryl Threatt, a 28-year-old graphic artist who is currently unemployed, was able to have a partial done on the spot.

“I also had an infection I didn’t know about from a root canal that went wrong,” Threatt said.

Like Threatt, many patients in attendance lost insurance policies due to unemployment. Some patients had policies that did not cover extensive dental or vision care, and many others were unable to afford insurance at all.

“Most of these patients just fall through the gaps for insurance because they are the working poor, the college students, or just destitute,” said a volunteer from L.A. Care Health Plan, who wished to remain anonymous.

Doctors, volunteers, and many other low-cost service organizations worked as a team throughout the weekend.

L.A. Care Health Plan massage therapist volunteers gave free 10-minute full-body massages to patients after their free vision and dental procedures.

Food vendors, including Subway, provided patients at the clinic with food and water.

“It was more than a clinic, or any doctor I ever paid to go to, because it was done with so much love,” said 30-year-old Jessica Buchanan, a patient at the event. “You can just feel the love. It was a perfect 10.”