Free health clinic treats 1,200 patients on opening day

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

More than 1,200 people flocked to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena on Tuesday for the start of a weeklong free clinic.

Organizers tried to shorten the lines this year by distributing color-coded wristbands in advance, signifying the day and time when patients will be treated, about 1,200 a day.

But scores of those with orange Tuesday wristbands lined up outside the arena overnight anyway, concerned they would miss their chance for free care from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Many did not have health insurance, or had insurance that did not cover eye and dental care provided at the clinic. Dozens more without wristbands also showed up hoping to get inside.

They were told to return Wednesday at 10 a.m., when about 1,600 remaining wristbands will be distributed. They left without incident, most vowing to return.

Wristbands are numbered, and patients are treated in order, with groups such as parents and children allowed in based on the highest number among them.

At 6 a.m. Tuesday, clinic volunteers called out for the first patient. No one responded. So they called No. 2. No. 2, Alisha Brown, is an unemployed mail carrier from Los Angeles. Brown wept as she was ushered inside.

Beside her was Christi Thornton of Inglewood, just licensed as a phlebotomist and also looking for work. The pair met Sunday while waiting for wristbands outside the arena, stayed in touch and waited together Tuesday morning.

“It means everything,” Thornton said of the clinic, “An opportunity to get glasses, dental work -- that’s important when you’re trying to get a job.”

Within the hour, Brown had two teeth pulled and Thornton had a new filling. Brown was disappointed to discover she could not get caps on her teeth or a partial bridge. Volunteer dentists are not performing molar root canals, either.

By afternoon, hundreds of patients waited in red folding chairs on the arena floor for eye exams, dental cleanings, HIV tests and Pap smears, among other services. Some eye care stations and dental chairs were unstaffed.

Organizers said they had fewer than the 300 medical volunteers expected, partly due to cancellations, partly due to low turnout among doctors.

They still need dermatologists, ophthalmologists, obstetricians, gynecologists and family practice doctors, said Dr. Natalie Nevins, who was coordinating medical care at the clinic for nonprofit sponsor Amrit Davaa World Health.

Nevins and other organizers said they also need nurse practitioners and general volunteers to help usher patients through treatment stations.

“It’s always a challenge to make it work,” Nevins said of the clinic, urging doctors to participate because “this is an L.A.. event. This is us showing L.A. we care.”

Shortly before noon, as Nevins checked on doctors and Brown and Thornton waited for new glasses, the last of 1,200 patients filed inside and Maria Shriver arrived to tour the clinic. She saw women who had never had Pap smears, mammograms or dental exams.

She shook hands and spoke with Freddie Graham, 61, a retired LAX security supervisor without the health insurance to pay for dental care and checkups for her diabetes. Shriver was joined by, among others, County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, City Councilman Bernard Parks and Stan Brock, founder of clinic sponsor Remote Area Medical, a Tennessee-based nonprofit.

“This is a great day for L.A. but it’s also a sobering moment in our state and our country,” Shriver told the crowd. “You walk through here and you see the need.”

Asked whether she would convey what she had seen to her husband, who eliminated the state’s Denti-Cal program for low-income adults last year, Shriver said, “I don’t need to tell the governor--he and everyone knows what the budget situation is. California’s issues are not unique.”