Flying Samaritans Do Good Turns in Baja

Times Staff Writer

A procession of small airplanes appears from the north, alighting one by one on a desolate airstrip in a dusty field in Baja California. Out step two dozen Americans, carrying leather bags and medical supplies. They pause to get their bearings, then move away from the field.

This is another monthly visit from the Flying Samaritans, who take medical services to the needy in some remote areas south of the border.

“When all of a sudden, everybody congregates out there in the same place, ready to go--that’s a good feeling,” said Sam Hernandez, coordinator for the group. “It’s like a flight of angels.”

That’s what a lot of Baja residents say too. Los angeles sin alas (the angels without wings), as some call the American volunteers, have been making their monthly flights for 26 years, and they have made a difference in some of the Mexican state’s fishing villages and agricultural outposts.


There are nine chapters of Flying Samaritans involving about 1,500 volunteers from California, Arizona and Mexico. They run 25 fly-in clinics in remote areas of Baja. The largest is the Foothill chapter, with a membership of about 400 medical and non-medical volunteers from the Los Angeles area--many of them from the San Gabriel Valley.

“I think a lot of us have passed from the ‘Me Generation’ to an ‘us-as-the-world’ idea,” said Leslie Spring, president of the chapter.

The volunteers clean teeth, examine eyes, manipulate vertebrae, remove foot calluses, give vaccinations and perform many other medical procedures in the little outposts, chipping in their own money to get there.

“The people who come to see us can’t afford to get medical services elsewhere,” said Dr. Charles Tannenbaum, an Arcadia ophthalmologist, who has been flying his own plane to Baja on mercy missions for six years. “In fact, in two out of the three locations I go, there are no medical services at all.”


Some patients are even transported, free of charge, back to the United States for surgical procedures in charitable hospitals. For example, Tannenbaum has gotten the backing of Santa Teresita Hospital in Duarte, which often contributes bed space for the needy who require surgery to remove cataracts or to correct other problems.

Conditions in Baja communities are sometimes less than basic. “It’s a Third World country, of course, and they lack a lot of the niceties,” Tannenbaum said--including, in many cases, running water and electricity.

“We have to bring bottled water to wash our hands and our instruments,” said Spring, who serves as coordinator of a clinic in San Telmo, a tiny settlement about 100 miles south of Ensenada. “We have a small generator for power.”

Unpredictable Problems

Dr. Larry Biederman, a Covina podiatrist, tells of the unpredictable difficulties involved in treating a young woman with a damaged tendon in one foot. Minor bone surgery to rebuild the woman’s arch was performed last January in a gulf community called Bahia de Los Angeles.

Biederman decided to immediately operate on the woman, who had been walking on the side of her foot since she was a small child.

Hernandez, the coordinator for the Bahia de los Angeles clinic, discovered that the town generator had run out of fuel. He purchased some diesel fuel from a local hotel, and the electricity was turned on.

“We got into surgery and everything was going pretty smoothly until all of a sudden the lights went off again,” Biederman recalled. Hernandez rushed back to the town power plant.


Lunch Break

“I ran up and (the operator) was locking the gate,” Hernandez said. “I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said he was going for lunch.” Hernandez persuaded the man to turn the generator back on until the operation was completed.

Dr. Al Helfenbein, a retired Pasadena dentist who has been a “Sam” for 12 years, said conditions are gradually improving as new equipment is introduced by American donors.

Helfenbein and Dr. David Lawson, another Pasadena dentist, developed an ingenious mobile kit that enabled them to “take down everything we needed to do anything from cosmetic bonding to ordinary silver amalgam fillings,” as Lawson put it.

The people that the Flying Samaritans examine are in generally good health. Their major problems are usually connected to the dearth of medical services in their communities, Tannenbaum said. “You don’t see the kind of vitamin deficiencies that would cause corneal deterioration or nerve problems,” he said. “It’s not like Africa. They’re not poor to that extent.”

Dr. Michael Budincich, a Pasadena chiropractor, treats many work-related back and neck ailments in Baja. “There’s only one category of work down there--labor,” he said. “People do a lot of repetitive lifting.”

Members of the Flying Samaritans say they have diverse motives for getting involved. For some, the weekend trips are good excuses to use their piloting skills or to socialize with like-minded people.