LINDA FELDMAN : After 20 Years, He's Making House Calls Again at Venice Clinic

Some people navigate their way through life plotting every step. By contrast, Dr. Bill Holden is an explorer of the opportunities that come his way.

Consider how he first got involved 20 years ago with the Venice Family Clinic, a nonprofit group that offers free health care to the poor.

"Phil Rossman, who started the clinic, called me," Holden says. "After a few minutes on the phone, he said, 'Oh, by the way,' and starts to explain why he started the clinic. I remember thinking that I don't want to know about it. I told him I hope it's a success and was ready to get off the phone and he tells me he's having a problem getting doctors."

Holden agreed to come the following week after work.

At the time, he was a 60-and-something internist with a thriving Beverly Hills practice of 20 years. Then, the Venice Family Clinic functioned only at night because during the day the premises were used by the UCLA dental school. It had two volunteer nurses, two doctors, a pharmacist and a closet with cardboard boxes filled with doctor's medical samples that were collected by volunteers from physicians in the area.

"The nurse took me to one of the examining rooms which, of course, had a dental chair in the middle of it," Holden recalls. "I sat down and a 10-year-old comes in. His eyes were popping out of his head. He had Graves disease. I asked him, 'How long have you been sick?' and he said, 'Two years.' He had never been to a doctor. It really bothered me that a kid this age with a terrible problem went untreated. It really disturbed me and because of that I came back regularly."

Holden admits there were many nights over the next eight months when he was so exhausted he didn't want to go to the clinic. But he knew people counted on him and he went anyway. Then one night the nurse broke the news that he was the only doctor on duty.

"I told her I couldn't handle the whole clinic myself and tried to leave," he said. "There were 25 people waiting, some for three hours. So I stayed, saw all the patients and arrived home after midnight. That was it. I was finished. I kissed the place goodby."

But now, two decades later, Holden is back. After selling his practice three years ago, he realized he still wanted to be a doctor. So he began volunteering again at the family clinic.

A lot has changed at the Venice Family Clinic, which is now housed in a new 18,000-square-foot facility serving 12,000 patients per year. Five-hundred physicians donate their time. "I couldn't believe it," Holden said. "Beautiful building and full-time doctors."

Holden feels that the most important factor in being a doctor is to like people. "Most doctors dislike people," he says. "Can't wait to get rid of them. The good doctors are the ones who like people, the lousy ones don't."

When Holden sees patients at the clinic he uses the same procedures he used when he was in practice. He brings them into the consulting room first and chats rather than have them wait for him wearing a paper wrap, uncomfortably perched on an examining table. Says Holden: "The most important thing is treating people well."

Bill Holden can't remember when he decided to become a doctor. He says it was not when, at the age of 17, he lost his mother to a botched surgery or, six months later, when his father died of a heart attack. As a kid growing up in New York City there was only one thing which occupied him completely: playing baseball. If it weren't for his older brother, he says, he probably wouldn't have gone to college. They took the subway to New York University to enroll him there but the lines were too long, so they took the train to Long Island University, which he attended for two years until someone told him about Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. He spent six years there, getting undergraduate and medical degrees, and returned to New York for a residency at Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital.

Over the years, Holden has taken time out to explore countries unlikely to appear on a Club Med brochure. That's thanks largely to his wife, Ruth, a dedicated traveler who has taken him to Afghanistan, Borneo, China, India, Nepal, Viet Nam and Iran. Says Ruth: "I usually talk him into it and then he loves it."

Bill Holden has no complaints about life. Patients from 25 years ago still call him and seek his advice, he attends lectures and accompanies physicians on their rounds at Cedars Hospital--and he sees patients at the Venice Family Clinic. Says Holden: "I'm very pleased to go over there. When I leave I've done something, accomplished something. It sounds highfalutin, but I feel I'm paying back what the public did for me."

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