By Susan Abram
Daily News, Los Angeles
Aug. 19–INGLEWOOD — The last needy patients to land a spot in a massive free medical clinic lined up before dawn Tuesday outside The Forum, grateful for a place in line, and eager for an aching tooth or two to be pulled, or a new pair of bifocals to be made.
Tuesday marked the last of an eight-day stretch of free medical, dental and vision care in Los Angeles, where the parking lot at The Forum had been transformed into one of the largest waiting rooms in the nation.
Hundreds of volunteer dentists, optometrists, pediatricians and other specialists served more than 6,000 people inside the 18,000 seat arena, filled each day by men and women who had no choice but to wait for hours for free care because they had little or no health insurance or money.
Over the eight days, dentists extracted 2,200 teeth, completed almost 5,500 fillings and performed nearly 2,000 cleanings. Nearly 1,800 pairs of eyeglasses were made and 400 women received mammograms.
“Thank God for this,” said Brenda Lemonious, a 55-year-old Inglewood woman who sat in line in the parking lot with her friend Linda Harris, who hadn’t been able to visit a dentist for five years.
Both women held part-time jobs — Lemonious as a crossing guard and Harris at a nearby Sears — which didn’t qualify them for health insurance.
“In this country it shouldn’t be like this,” Lemonious said. “But this sheds light that we do have a problem.”
Over the course of the clinic, observers said the scene at The Forum bluntly illustrated the nation’s healthcare system, and noted how it took a nonprofit organization that often works in Third World countries to help so many Americans.
The services were coordinated by an international nonprofit called Remote Area Medical. Formed in 1985, RAM has held 575 such clinics all over the world. It became better known after a story about its work was seen on a national news program showing Americans driving hundreds of miles to get to a RAM clinic just to have an abscessed tooth pulled or a prescription filled.
RAM founder Stan Brock called The Forum clinic “an island of hope” for thousands of people, but he had been disappointed to have to turn people away because of a shortage of dentists and optometrists.
While he appreciated the work of the 4,000 volunteers, Brock criticized a California law that didn’t allow physicians with licenses from other states to come and help out.
Yet many who were seen were happy to receive some care and to be listened to.
Even a little attention goes a long way, said Marion Daniels of Los Angeles, who was suffering from cloudy vision due to cataracts.
On her way to The Forum on Monday to secure a seat for Tuesday, she slipped in a stairwell and cut two fingers.
But the senior citizen didn’t dare visit a hospital.
“If you don’t have money to pay, they won’t see you,” Daniels said. “They tell you, come back in three weeks.”
Irene Navas, 52, of Los Angeles, came to The Forum on the last day to have a tooth examined. She sat with hundreds of other slack-jawed patients, hoping for some sort of relief for aching molars, cuspids, and reddened gums.
“I know we’re in a recession, but (Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) shouldn’t have made cuts to health,” she said of programs such as Denti-Cal and Healthy Families.
“What will happen is many more people will get sick and then cost the state more money,” she said. “This is the kind of thing you see in poor countries. All we can hope for is that President Obama fights hard for healthcare.”
Dr. Reza Tabesh, a Los Angeles dentist who volunteered at the event, said he saw a lot of worn-down teeth and gaping cavities. Caring for so many during such a large-scale operation was rewarding, though he wished more could be done.
“Considering this is the first of its kind in Los Angeles, this is quite an accomplishment,” he said. “At least we could take some time to let a patient know that people do care and that people want to be helpful.”
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