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Maintaining a Healthy Practice : Costa Mesa Doctor Treats Poor on Visits to Mexico

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several times a year, Dr. Ron Rothman steels himself for one of those really tough working days. One of those days when hundreds of patients are lined up at a tiny clinic, when they have to be rushed through without a break because so many more are waiting outside. Another day when the equipment is outmoded, the pay nonexistent.

Rothman, a 58-year-old specialist in rehabilitative medicine, is one of a small team of American medics who fly to the Mexican state of Sinaloa the first Friday of each month from October to June, bearing medication, vitamins and an urge to help.

It’s not always the same group, and Rothman, who has been suffering heart problems recently, is not always able to make the trip. But at least a few times a year--most recently, on Dec. 2--the Costa Mesa resident, a doctor at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Harbor City, musters the energy for a sixth day of work.

When he returns, he said, “even though I’m physically tired, I always feel up. It’s a feeling of helping people who can’t get this kind of care.”

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Certainly, the people drawn to the Red Cross clinic in the small town of Ahome, where the team goes each month, are happy to see a physician. They begin lining up at 4 a.m., dressed in their Sunday best, and wait patiently for hours to get their turn.

Rothman particularly remembers one patient from his most recent trip, a 9-year-old boy, nearly blind, accompanied by his mother.

“She is an agricultural worker who brought her son in to have his eyes examined,” Rothman said. The two had to wait until nearly the end of the day.

As it turned out, the boy’s blindness was caused by a parasite eating away at the retina of his eyes. There is no treatment; all Rothman could do was advise the mother to keep the boy in school.

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Too often, Rothman said, the visits go like that, with patients whose ailments require treatment beyond what he can accomplish in the clinic. Sometimes they need surgery, and not everyone can be brought to the United States to receive it. Sometimes they have cancer and his only weapon is pain relievers.

But he does have antibiotics for the infections, he said, and insulin for the diabetics.

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For the December trip, Rothman traveled with group leader Dr. Jule Lamm, a 71-year-old Brentwood optometrist, and Dr. Donald Ham, an ophthalmologist from Las Cruces, N.M., who flew to California to join the pair.

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It was a typically grueling trip. The three piled into Lamm’s single-engine Cessna 182 at Santa Monica Airport and flew four hours to Guaymas. After a night’s stay at a hotel, they flew to Los Mochis, where an area resident transported them by an old ambulance 20 miles north to Ahome.

By 9 a.m., when the trio arrived, more than 300 people, drawn by announcements made over the radio, were sitting on stone benches or under trees and leaning against pickup trucks.

While Lamm concentrates on eye examinations, bringing glasses with him on each trip, the accompanying doctors act as general practitioners for the day, treating whatever comes their way.

They work at breakneck speed. That Saturday afternoon, Rothman saw more than 100 people with ailments that included diabetes, arthritis, infections and cancer.

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It was well past sunset when Rothman, Ham and Lamm got back to the hotel in Guaymas; the next morning, they flew back to the United States.

Lamm and Rothman met more than a decade ago through a mutual friend. Since then, Rothman has made more than 40 trips to Ahome with Lamm.

“I plan on continuing,” Rothman said.

People who know Rothman describe him as friendly and caring. Those who have seen him work say he has an excellent bedside manner.

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“The feeling is that he really enjoys taking care of the people,” Lamm said. “He’s a doctor’s doctor. In this age, everyone is so specialized. Dr. Rothman is from the old school--he wants to do as much as he can. I’d love to have a half-dozen Dr. Rothmans every time I go.”

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Rothman, a graduate of the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York City, was born in 1936 in New York to immigrants from Transylvania, Romania. He was 4 years old when World War II broke out.

As Jews, Rothman’s family suffered catastrophe under Nazi occupation. His father’s entire extended family, 67 relatives, died in concentration camps, he said.

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“One of the stronger memories I have is my father going into mourning every time he heard a relative was killed,” Rothman said, rubbing his forehead at the recollection.

After graduating from medical school in 1961, Rothman came to California for a residency at the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Hospital in Westwood. In Los Angeles, he met his wife of 29 years, Lilyana.

The two married in 1965, then went to South America, where he served four years as a Peace Corps doctor. In Uruguay he organized a public health program in that country that was successful in curbing a disease spread by tapeworm-infested dogs.

The couple have four grown children.

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Ilan, 27, is currently in Chile studying medicine. Sarita, 25, lives in Jerusalem. She went to Israel to study art and a number of her works hang in the hallway of Rothman’s home. Yehudit Miriam, 22, is a student at USC majoring in psychology and communications, and Avi, 17, is a senior at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa.

Rothman says that despite the exhaustion, the work he does in Mexico is what it means to be a doctor. His next trip to Ahome will be in February.

The memories of the atrocities suffered by his family under the Nazis fuels his desire to help others, Rothman said.

“I always had a sense you had to make the world a better place to live in.”

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