Care Harbor brings free health care to LA

Inside the vast, cavernous Los Angeles Sports Arena, a hidden city was actively alive. Care Harbor provided free health care services to nearly 3,000 low-income and uninsured patients from Oct. 31 through Nov. 3.

The event was sponsored by an array of groups, including Dignity Care, LA Health and the Buddhist organization Tzu Chi.

In the center of the arena, everything from dental work to vision care was provided to those who received the coveted wristbands which gave people access to the free health care one day before Care Harbor began.

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There were rows of chairs where dental volunteers pulled teeth and provided fillings and cleanings. A mobile vision clinic inside the arena was used to check eyesight and look for signs of diseases such as diabetes.

Throughout the arena hallways, rooms were turned into spaces for a women’s clinic and mammogram checks. The Paul Mitchell cosmetology school was present providing free haircuts, shampoo and makeup.

Merrill Rubens, the director of operations for this year’s Care Harbor, spoke about the logistics of the social operation.

“It’s been going great, almost eerily smooth,” she said. “Most people’s priority is to get dental care. Dental is the highest demand, and then vision comes next.”

Rubens said that there were about 700 volunteers at the event, and that the University of California, Los Angeles is a big supporter who brought plenty of doctors and dentists.

Physician’s assistant Ricardo Perez showed up to work at 5 a.m. at Care Harbor.

“For me, it means a lot to help other people, especially coming from a Third World country,” said Perez. “Here in the states, we forget that there are a lot of people in need.”

Caroline Romero, an emergency medical technician, came to volunteer with her mother who is also an EMT.

“My experience has been great,” Romero said. “I would certainly do it again.”

Caroline’s mother Elena Romero was also present as an interpreter.

“I want to instill in my daughters early in their careers that they need to give back to their community with their talents and their training,” she said. “It’s not always about money. You need to give back to your community.”

Among the attendees seeking care, there were other offers such as free telephones with special features for the visually and hearing impaired, provided by the Los Angeles Telephone Access Program.

Students from the Paul Mitchell cosmetology school took a break after giving about 500 hair cuts per day.

“This was the greatest day of my life,” said Paul Mitchell volunteer Enn Washington. “I was having such a low month, and this picked me back up.”

Some individuals broke down into tears through the simple gift of a haircut after learning that some had not cut their hair in months, or even years.

“This was so good; it’s of such benefit for me at least,” said Maria Melgar, who attended Care Harbor with her daughter and son-in-law.

Waiting for his wife to receive a dental cleaning, Pascual Sanchez spoke about his experience the day earlier when he had a tooth pulled, happily showing off the gap.

“The service here was excellent, and the whole team was great,” said Sanchez. “What they are doing is a great help for our minority community, which is mostly low-income. It’s so important. This program should be extended to the entire country.”

Natalie Mevins, medical director of Care Harbor, has also worked to try to bring health care to countries like India.

“The most frustrating part is realizing that we have a Third World country right here,” said Mevins. “A lot of the things we see in India or Mexico, we see here with our indigent population.”

Mevins pointed out that many patients at Care Harbor are working poor who may have up to three jobs but still cannot get insurance, noting that she hopes the impending Affordable Care Act will change this reality.

“For people who have insurance they have no idea what it’s like for those who don’t have it,” said Mevins, “Our level of empathy is sometimes somewhat lacking because it’s hard to understand what it’s like to be hungry if you’ve never had to starve.”

“My hope is that these big events won’t be necessary anymore in the future,” said Mevins.