Thom Dandridge stood on the ramp to a large, blocky trailer built to house delicate eyeglass-making equipment, and looked out with marvel at the droves of people gathered inside the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena Tuesday.
In front of him, hundreds had gathered for dental cleanings, vision checks, immunizations, and other medical procedures. Behind him, in the trailer, volunteers made new pairs of eyeglasses that would later be given out for free to those in need.
Around him, in the temporary exam rooms set up in offices and mobile trailers, medical professionals offered everything from mammograms to blood work, all of it for free. People from all walks of life—1,200 in the first day of the weeklong event alone—showed up to take advantage.
“Everybody deserves a break in life,” Dandridge said.
The L.A. free clinic is the 601st “expedition” of Remote Area Medical (RAM), a group that provides free vision, dental and medical care to people through an all-volunteer staff at its events. Founded in 1985 to provide care to people in isolated areas around the world (a service it still provides), last year the clinic popped up in Los Angeles for an urban expedition. At least 6,000 people were treated, with more turned away.
This year, more than 8,000 patients are slated for treatment. The admissions process has been streamlined—organizers handed out bracelets three days in advance that told patients when to show up for care. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 6,300 wristbands had been distributed.
Inside, the Sports Arena stadium was prepped for mass patient care. Donated dental chairs were lined up in long, even rows. Batteries of vision testing equipment sat near lines of eye charts, and ad hoc examination rooms were set up by the dozen in the wings. Much of the medical equipment is donated to RAM, as is the time of the doctors, dentists, and other caregivers that run it. Volunteers like Dandridge plan, organize, and oversee the logistics of RAM’s clinics, making the group’s 20 planned expeditions for 2010 possible.
A Community in Need
Patients coming through the doors on Tuesday were grateful for the opportunity to get care.
“I haven’t seen a dentist in a long time, and I need to get some stuff done,” said Aida Reyes, a mother of two who brought her family to the Sports Arena.
Reyes is out of a job, and she and her family rely on her husband’s part-time work for financial support.
“Whatever he makes is for rent and then for food and for the bills,” Reyes said. “We can’t afford to go see the dentist or to go check my eyes, so it’s either we spend for that or we eat. We have to eat, so it’s really hard right now.”
That familiar dilemma makes RAM particularly valuable, Dandridge said: a bit of free medical or dental care can have a huge impact on people in need.
“When we’re down and out, you know, it just takes a little bit of pick me up to make a difference in your life and in the direction you’re going to go,” he said.
Professionals Who Care
Along with the 1,200 people registered for care on Tuesday, 300 medical volunteers came from around the country to provide services ranging from pap smears to acupuncture.
Paul Bilovsky, an oral surgeon with his own practice in Sherman Oaks, California, said he spent the majority of Tuesday pulling teeth from patients who, like Reyes, desperately needed dental care. Though he planned to see as many people as possible, he said he could tell that the number of dentists on hand would probably not be enough to handle the demand.
“I can see maybe a half a dozen people, maybe a dozen tops from the time I’m going to be here, and that doesn’t even begin to meet the need,” he said.
A common theme among many of the patients at the event was a lack of both money and health insurance, despite the recent passing of the federal health care reform bill. Many of the benefits in that law will take years to reach the uninsured—even if the law does, in fact, withstand efforts to have it repealed—which leaves many without access to care in the meantime.
“It is unfortunate that this event is even necessary,” Bilovsky said. “It shouldn’t be necessary; there should be care available for everybody, and it is not.”
Some specialty services were also available at the RAM clinic, such as those of Dr. Frank Kase, a podiatrist from Burbank, who said he came to treat patients with foot ailments often due to illnesses such as diabetes, which can lead to amputation if left untreated. Kase said he hopes to help prevent that.
“That’s what we’re about,” Kase said. “We’re trying to save some limbs and some lives.”
Logistics volunteers are also crucial to the RAM clinic, such as nursing student Crystle Wyatt from the Downey Adult School in Southern California, who guided patients through the triage section where nurses asked about medical records and took patients’ blood pressures.
“We’re trying to get a feel for our community to see what’s out there and who we can help,” Wyatt said.
The Volunteers' Rewards
Volunteers arrive at 5:30 each morning, and though the days are long, Dandridge says he is not complaining.
“You get the hugs and the thanks and you’re on cloud nine,” he said. “[Volunteering] is better than anything you can do.”
Dandridge first volunteered three years ago in his home state of Tennessee. He ended up in the ocular unit where the volunteers make up to 350 pairs of glasses a day.
On his first day as a volunteer, he made a pair for an 11-year-old boy, who changed Dandridge’s life forever.
“The boy said to me, 'I’m 11 years old. I didn’t know what a leaf looked like until today.’” The boy went on to tell Dandridge that because his parents could not afford to get him a pair of glasses, not only could he not see what a leaf looked like, but he was struggling in school, too.
“When you see an 11-year-old kid you think, ‘He’s 11 years old. He should know what a leaf looks like,’ ” Dandridge said, wiping tears from his eyes as he told the story.
“He should be able to see and he couldn’t. We gave him that opportunity; we made a difference, and that is why I do this.”
Three years later, Dandridge is a manager for RAM’s Reach Across America project, a job he says is too fulfilling to describe.
“You can’t explain the feeling you get when somebody comes up and says, ‘Thank you, I can see again,’ and you know you were part of that to make a difference for somebody.”