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Column: The medical supplies were sitting in storage. Then this healthcare team sent them to the front lines

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RVs deployed at Dockweiler State Beach to isolate COVID-19 patients and those exposed to the disease.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Good people doing good things in troubled times. It’s a story that doesn’t get old, and here’s one more chapter.

In ordinary times, a Glendale-based nonprofit called Mending Kids sends volunteer medical teams around the world to perform pediatric surgery on children in need. But the coronavirus crisis forced a pause for a charity that has flown to the rescue in more than a dozen countries over the last 15 years and served more than 4,000 kids.

“All of a sudden our surgical missions were grounded,” said Mending Kids’ executive director, Isabelle Fox. “Our doctors still wanted to travel, but the risk to them was that they’d be quarantined when they got back home, and their practices would take serious hits.”

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More than 100 recreational vehicles parked in a lot at Dockweiler State Beach are being used to house people who have tested positive for or have symptoms of COVID-19.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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As a result, stockpiled medical equipment intended for foreign service was sitting unused while stories about supply shortages at U.S. clinics and hospitals abounded. Mending Kids had hundreds of masks, along with gowns, face shields and oxygen supply equipment.

“My first instinct was — how can we have the most impact with what we have, here at home?” said Fox.

Fox first checked with the doctors, nurses and other medical staff who volunteer with Mending Kids and provided equipment to those who needed it at their regular workplaces. Fox also wanted to get equipment to anyone doing social and medical outreach for L.A. County’s thousands of homeless people.

To that end, Fox called a friend, and before long she was connected to Sieglinde von Deffner, an L.A. County coordinator of skid row services.

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Von Deffner, a social worker, is one of the many unsung heroes who for years has worked the streets here in the homeless capital of the United States. I once wrote about a woman living in her car at a hospital where she was getting dialysis treatment, and someone asked me, “Have you called Sieglinde?” I hadn’t but after I did, the dialysis patient got housed.

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Workers monitor RVs parked at Dockweiler State Beach to housing people under coronavirus quarantine.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

When Fox caught up with her in mid-March, Von Deffner and the county’s Housing for Health team had been temporarily redeployed from skid row to Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey, where teams were setting up isolation and quarantine units for COVID-19 patients and those exposed to the disease. Some of the few dozen people in the temporary housing were homeless, some had been in shelters, some were living in overcrowded conditions. The point was to get them proper medical treatment and limit the spread of the virus.

At that point, the workers already had protective equipment, Von Deffner said, but she knew that N95 masks and other supplies could be hard to come by, So she asked the L.A. County Health Services Department’s medical director on the Dockweiler team, Dr. Heidi Behforouz, if they could use a donation from Mending Kids.

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“She said, ‘Heck yeah, we’ll take it,’” said Von Deffner.

“The conditions were really challenging because of the wind at Dockweiler,” said Von Deffner, something that made contact with sick clients seem all the riskier. She said she maintained a six-foot distance between herself and the others, but medical staffers needed to be in close contact with the clients they were caring for.

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Back at Mending Kids headquarters, Fox, volunteer Bob Rubaszewski and others began loading supplies into vehicles. One of the organization’s doctors — ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Ayal Willner — was there for a board meeting and helped sift through the supplies to determine what might be most useful to a quarantine camp.

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“I said let’s go,” Willner told me, and he drove one of the vehicles to Dockweiler, where he helped unload the equipment.

Willner, a board member at Mending Kids, has traveled to far-off places to perform surgery and help train foreign medical teams, so there’s a sustainable service in place. He is scheduled to travel to Tanzania in June, but fears that mission will be postponed. He also works on Mending Kids’ L.A. mission, which is to perform surgeries on local children who don’t have access to healthcare and are bullied for scars or physical maladies.

“I’m thankful to have the opportunity to go to Tanzania and Guatemala and help people there and to train their physicians, and also to help here with our hometown mission,” Willner said. “It’s an honor.”

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The delivered equipment was put to good use, Von Deffner said, and the Dockweiler camp served its purpose until the county was able to move clients there and the medical team to a hotel in Bell Gardens. But the relationship between the county and Mending Kids didn’t end there.

The usual medical supply chain has been disrupted worldwide during the pandemic, and it’s now a case of “grab what you can wherever you can get it.” Mending Kids, because of its global connections, has been able to scramble, tap sources and get supplies. And Fox has kept in touch with Von Deffner.

“We did more fundraising through our donors,” Fox said, “and were able to buy masks and face shields and gloves, and I called Sieglinde back and said, ‘Is this gonna make a difference?’ She said absolutely, so last Friday I loaded a couple hundred face shields and N95 masks ... and we had a portable ventilator we use for kids who are having open heart surgery.”

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RVs parked at Dockweiler State Beach to be used to housing people under coronavirus quarantine.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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Fox delivered most of the equipment to Von Deffner but took the ventilator to MLK Hospital.

“I know everybody is crazy for ventilators right now,” she said. “They had 11 ventilators on hand and 10 were in use with six more on order. And today, I coordinated for another ventilator to be sent to them.”

Von Deffner said the bulk of the latest donation from Mending Kids is now in use at the hotel that’s serving as an isolation and quarantine center. The rest is being used by the public and nonprofit medical teams serving skid row, where Von Deffner is working again. And she said Fox has told her she’ll be shipping more supplies, including a large stash of masks, as soon as she gets her hands on them.

We’ll have lots of dark and painful memories when, down the road, we look back on this prolonged test of our resolve. We’ll think about the loss of so many lives, the blow to so many businesses and the economic hardship suffered by millions.

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But we’ll also remember this as a time when a day did not go by without a story about somebody doing something good for somebody else.

You can find more information on the Mending Kids mission, and how to support the cause, at mendingkids.org.


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