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QUIET DESPERATION: Free SB Health Clinic Draws Thousands

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Health reform's human stories

Chris Levister

It was a scene that could have been playing out in a Third World country or post-hurricane New Orleans, except that it wasn't. It was unfolding in San Bernardino Friday, and the hundreds who showed up weren't refugees of a disaster or a civil war, instead most were ordinary working people without health insurance. Louise Banks, 49 has had a lump in her breast for months. Wesley Emerson, 32, his dental insurance won’t cover the tab for a root canal, Ruby Davis, 56 can no longer drive because her eyesight has deteriorated. Eva Gomez, 68 suffers from diabetes, hypertension, and constant hip pain. She hasn’t seen a doctor in years. Such stories were typical among the thousands of people screened during the three-day Care 4 a Healthy I.E. event at the National Orange Show Events Center. Molina Healthcare, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit medical care provider, teamed with Buddhist foundation Tzu Chi to offer people free dental, health screenings, vision, acupuncture, vaccines, well child exams and primary care for free. Hours before opening to the public the healthcare clinic was jumping with the energy of hundreds of smiling volunteer doctors, dentists, acupuncturists, nurses and other professionals. Patients began arriving before dawn on a chilly Friday morning, people of all ages lining up by the hundreds, some jobless, some in wheelchairs, others hobbling on crutches, many of them missing teeth, all of them seeking the same thing: free medical and dental care. James Gillett hadn't seen a doctor in two years, not since the 47-year-old machinist lost his job and insurance when his employer went broke. Eugena Hopkins arrived at 5:30 a.m. 10 hours before the gates opened. “I brought my camping gear and my cat. I am just so grateful to be here,” said Hopkins. Hopkins who lives in Perris says she was turned away from the massive free clinic held in Los Angeles in October 2011.

“My older sister died of ovarian cancer. I lost my job in February. I can’t afford to get tested,” she said. 73-year-old Coleman Chandler suffers from early dementia, arthritis and deteriorating eyesight. “The world around me is a blur. I just want to be able to see my 1-year-old grandson,” he said fighting back tears. Dennis Pham is bipolar and needs glasses. The out-of-work forklift driver last saw a doctor in 2008.

Once inside the cavernous Orange Show event center Pham and others got their eyes and teeth checked but it was here behind the curtains of a makeshift exam room that he experienced something different. “The doctor treated me with dignity. He took time to examine me and answered my questions. He set me up for free future testing and medications,” said Pham. “It’s been a long time since I felt like someone really cared.” Pham praised Molina after seeing Los Angeles, San Diego and other California cities host high profile clinics. “We are poor and overlooked,” he said referring to San Bernardino’s distinction by the U.S. Census Bureau as the country’s second most impoverished city. Molina Healthcare of California President Richard Chambers said San Bernardino’s low income status was a driving force behind the area’s largest free health clinic to date. “We got really excited after we saw the response to the free clinics held in Los Angeles County the last couple of years. We believe the people of San Bernardino County deserve to have access to these services.”

“The need is really great. So many of the people suffer from multiple conditions,” said Debra Boudreaux CEO of Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation. “There’s a lot of unemployment and desperation. We see a lot of stress. That can lead to more serious problems like heart disease and stroke.” Yolanda Wilburn of Highland waited more than two hours with her two sons DeShaun, 7 and Matthew Sayson 2.

DeShaun has health insurance. Yolanda and Matthew don’t because she can’t pay for it,” said Wilburn. “I brought Matthew here for a well child exam after learning it would cost $300-$400 out of pocket. The healthcare system is really broken. We need more clinics like this.” “What you're seeing is a lot of Middle America here,” said Molina nurse practitioner Michael Conrad.

“As volunteers we not only contribute to our community by assisting those in need, we also receive a great deal in return. From making new friends to learning new skills to recognizing that our contribution is making a difference,” said Conrad. Some patients would need follow-up care, so before letting them out of the building, volunteers were writing referrals to free clinics around the area.

“To be associated with so many wonderful volunteers, sharing a common desire to reach out and help, provides me with a great sense of belonging…” said Pediatrician Bobbi Underhill, D.O., gesturing toward a crowd of more than 400 people waiting to receive medical and dental care. “Receiving a thank you after helping someone is a rewarding feeling,” said American Medical Student Association (Cal State University San Bernardino chapter) president, Ricardo L. Juarez. “Volunteering has been challenging and stimulating as new scenarios are constantly encountered, keeping it fresh and interesting,” the pre-med student said.

The event included a health resource fair, food court, a children’s fun zone, entertainment plus an autograph session with the Inland Empire 66ers.

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