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Mobile Medics : Rescue Mission’s Clinic on Wheels Brings Basic Health Care to the Poor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the screened-off back room of a converted 32-foot mobile home, 5-year-old Connie Aleman stretches her arms and fixes her dark brown eyes on Dr. Dimitri Sirakoff as he examines her hands.

They are covered with eczema, and although Connie holds still while Sirakoff examines her, it is clear from the scars across the rash that at times Connie has scratched herself bloody, trying to stop the itching. Connie’s mother, Cristabel Aleman, stands by with her two other children while the doctor examines Connie’s hands.

The family has no insurance, no family doctor and no money for medicine, Cristabel Aleman says, which is why the Orange County Rescue Mission’s new medical mobile home will be so important to her family. Staffed by Sirakoff, who is a doctor of osteopathic medicine, and nurse Melody Owen, the Mobile Rescue Vehicle will roll out three times a week to various locations in an effort to meet the basic health needs of Orange County’s poor and homeless.

“This is a very good thing for us,” Cristabel Aleman says in Spanish, ushering her daughter out the back door of the mobile home as another patient comes in the front. “The doctor gave me cream for her hands and some medicine for her asthma, so now I hope she’ll get better soon.”

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On a recent afternoon, the mobile unit was stationed at Flower and 3rd streets. Outreach workers from the Rescue Mission had spread the news before the mobile home arrived that free medical services were on the way, and in the few seconds Sirakoff and Owen took to ready their paperwork, 25 people were in line.

Within half an hour, a line of 50 women with children, homeless men and several senior citizens had formed.

“Since everyone can’t come to the mission for help, we decided we needed to be able to go to them,” said the mission’s executive director, Jim Palmer. “Our goal is to have a presence in every city in Orange County.”

The $150,000 mobile vehicle is stocked with donations from several Orange County hospitals, Palmer said. Rescue Mission workers will choose a different site each time, stopping at highway underpasses, parks and industrial areas where homeless people are known to congregate.

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Sirakoff and Owen, who also volunteer at the Rescue Mission, say that many of the illnesses they see are characteristic of people living in poverty.

“Particularly because of poor hygiene--and especially in homeless people who are exposed to a lot of moisture--they are more likely to have infections,” Sirakoff said. “If someone who’s homeless gets a cut, the chances are that it’s going to get much worse much more faster.”

Respiratory infections, gastrointestinal complaints, colds and flu are common, the doctor said, as are bladder infections, skin infections, asthma in young children and high blood pressure in adults.

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Maria Sevian, 58, was waiting to see Sirakoff because she ached everywhere.

“I have had headaches for weeks, and my neck hurts, my legs hurt--I have pains all throughout my body,” she said. “I’m hoping the doctor can help me because I cannot even work like this.”

While Sirakoff saw to the sickest of the patients and Owen administered flu vaccines, Jim Womack, outreach manager for the mission, pulled up in the mission’s van behind the mobile vehicle and doled out bag lunches of baloney sandwiches, fruit and a dessert. The food was even more popular than the promise of pills and shots, and many people darted out of line to grab lunch.

Womack also gave away Mighty Ducks sweat shirts donated by the Disney Co. Their appearance caused a minor stampede, particularly among the homeless men in line; in the coming days the extra warmth will be important for those who sleep outside.

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But no effort by the Rescue Mission is undertaken without God in mind. Womack, who preaches at the mission before meals, encourages people to come there for help, when they’re ready. While praising the Lord, he hands out food and hygiene kits with encouragements to have faith.

Womack said he realized the mission needed a mobile vehicle last year when the agency had prepared a box of food and toys for a mother and two small children, but could not get it to her because she lacked transportation and he was unable to leave the mission.

“Once someone else came, I ran out of there with the box. . . . I really prayed over it, and I realized that I wanted to do this on a wider scale, so that we could reach people who won’t come to the Orange County Rescue Mission,” Womack said.

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At the end of the afternoon, Sirakoff and Owen are tired. In almost three hours, they have examined more than 100 people.

“The antibiotics went like candy,” Sirakoff said with a sigh, sitting down for the first time in three hours as the mobile home rolled back to the mission.

Neither the volunteers nor Rescue Mission staff are discouraged by the seemingly endless stream of poverty and illness.

“All we’re doing is basically scratching the surface, letting them know that people care about them and that they’re not alone,” Womack said. “But there are so many people who have the same heart we have, who are out here working, that anything is possible, with the Lord’s help.”

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