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Health on Wheels : New Support Gets Mobile Clinic Rolling Again

Circling warily around the stranger in their midst, the elderly residents of a mobile home park didn’t know quite what to make of the unfamiliar, red-and-white motorbus.

“I walked out my front door and thought we were going to Las Vegas,” said Tom Berling, 70, who lives in Prothero Mobile Estates.

But the unexpected visitor was the Community Development Council’s mobile health clinic, which was back on the road this week after a year’s absence delivering doctors to perform checkups on 16 seniors at the mobile home park.

From 1982 until last year, the nonprofit group’s 36-foot, converted recreational vehicle brought health care to those in the county who couldn’t get to a doctor or afford the bill when they did. In 1988 alone, the mobile unit served more than 4,000 people.

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But the program came to a sudden halt when UCI Medical Center ended a three-year relationship with the Community Development Council. The hospital, which had used the program to train resident doctors, found that the mobile unit was too cramped.

Unable to find another hospital to back the program, Lee Gelber watched the mobile clinic sit motionless in the Costa Mesa-based Community Development Council’s parking lot for more than a year.

“It was kind of heartbreaking to see it in the parking lot, not doing anything,” said Gelber, a director for the council, which has used federal funds to serve the county’s poor for more than 26 years.

But the council used the year off to negotiate pacts with the county and a group of emergency care doctors to help staff the mobile clinic four days a week.

And earlier this month, when the County Board of Supervisors agreed to pay up to $50,000 annually to find and hire physicians for the program, it became official: The mobile clinic was back on the road.

“What this means is that we will be able to serve the poor and indigent in Orange County again,” Gelber said. “Sometimes I didn’t know if we would make it or not, but here we are.”

The reappearance of the bulky motorbus was cheered by social service agencies in Orange County.

“This is great,” said Mary Ann Salamida, executive director of the Neighborhood Service Center in Santa Ana. “The last time they were here, we had people lining up around 7 a.m., and only the first 26 could get in. They were really missed.”

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Many of Salamida’s clients in the heavily Latino section of Santa Ana “don’t speak the language, don’t read the language and don’t know where to go for medical treatment,” she said. The mobile clinic “gives hope to the community,” she said. “It lets them know that someone is looking after them.”

The clinic will operate four days a week, visiting 28 sites throughout the county on a rotating basis. Gelber said the council hopes to return to each location, usually a church, community center or social service agency, every four to six weeks.

Each day is set aside for a different health program, including AIDS support, family planning, pediatrics and general health. Before visiting a site, the council will flood the area with flyers letting the public know what service is being offered that day.

For no charge, patients are diagnosed and medicine is dispensed by the doctors when it is needed. Full physicals, testing and prenatal care are also available.

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“We will not turn people away,” Gelber said. “We will not let anybody fall through the cracks.”

When Dr. Robert Realmuto read about UCI’s decision to sever itself from the program, he went to the Society of Orange County Emergency Physicians to see if they could fill the void.

“I told them that this is a great, great way for (the society) to make an impact in the community,” said Realmuto of Fountain Valley, who serves as treasurer for the group.

After nine months of negotiation over issues such as malpractice insurance, the physicians’ group signed a one-year contract to provide free services.

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Realmuto said that several of the emergency physicians in the group have lined up to volunteer one morning a week.

“If you look at who is already providing most of the uncompensated care in the county, it’s the emergency physicians,” Realmuto said. “That’s why I’m so hyped that we’re doing this. It obviously means more than money to us.”

The volunteer doctors supplement a permanent medical assistant paid by the Community Development Council.

For Berling, the clinic’s visit on Tuesday meant that his wife didn’t have to drive him to Huntington Beach for a checkup.

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“It was a good thing that he came in,” Realmuto said. “Tom is hypertensive, and that’s something that should be followed up regularly.”

Gelber estimates that the program will need three to four months to reach its 1988 level of service.

“It’s like the first time through,” he said. “Initially, people might be skeptical about what we’re trying to do. But all it takes is a couple of people to get good service and it spreads around through word of mouth.”


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