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UCLA volunteers provide free health care at clinic in downtown LA

CareNow clinic delivers health care of last resort.

Four-year-old Nayeli Valdez lay back in a dental chair Friday morning, gazing up at the cavernous ceiling of the L.A. Sports Arena during her very first trip to the dentist.

She was one of an estimated 1,200 people at the arena receiving free medical, dental and eye care that day at the CareNow/LA health clinic, to which UCLA sent scores of volunteer health care providers and students.

While UCLA dentist Edmond Hewlett cleaned Nayeli’s teeth and filled a cavity, her father Francisco Valdez said through an interpreter that the clinic was his only option for dental care.

“He’s very happy that they were able to be seen,” the interpreter said. “They’re from a low-income family, so they can’t afford stuff like this.”

UCLA Dentist Edmond Hewlett treats a 4-year-old girl.

It was one of many wrenching cases for Hewlett that day. He wanted to do more to help Nayeli, who had “a mouthful of cavities.” Although Hewlett filled one, the others would need attention soon, he said. For the UCLA dentist, helping people like Nayeli was one of the joys — and pains — of volunteering at the clinic.

“On the one hand, it’s gratifying, and on the other hand, you see how much more need there is, and we can’t do enough,” said Hewlett. “It breaks your heart.”

It was a sentiment repeated by several of the more than 70 UCLA health care providers — physicians, dentists, ophthalmologists and more — volunteering at the CareNow/LA free clinic from Oct. 20 to 23. They and hundreds of other L.A. area doctors filled cavities, provided mammograms, screened patients for cancer, glaucoma and cataracts, and donated many other services.

The four-day clinic, which CareNow described as the largest free health care clinic in the country, served an estimated 5,000 patients who waited in line for hours earlier in the week to claim one of the coveted appointments.

Michelle Bholat, UCLA

The clinic brought much-needed assistance to people who had fallen through the cracks, said Dr. Michelle Bholat, the vice chair of the UCLA Department of Family Medicine. She estimated that more than half of those she had seen said they had been incarcerated, making it harder for them to get work and health coverage. Bholat recalled one such patient in her early 30s who recently lost her job and health insurance. The woman had high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.

“She was the typical patient at the clinic, the one who’s falling through the cracks, and if we don’t help her, in two years we’ll see her in the emergency room for kidney failure or a stroke,” Bholat said. The physician was able to give her some important screening tests and connect her to clinics that could provide follow-up care. But that’s not enough, she said.

“We really have a crisis on our hands,” Bholat said. “This clinic is fantastic, but we need care that’s sustainable.”

Patients were touchingly grateful to her and to her colleagues, she noted.

“Everyone said they were so impressed by our bedside manner,” Bholat said. “So many of them said this was the first time they felt like they had a personal physician — even in an arena with thousands of other people.”

Ravi Dave, UCLA

UCLA cardiologist Dr. Ravi Dave (pronounced Da-vay) spent his day helping patients like Edmund Dominguez, a 53-year-old whose blood pressure was so high that Dave warned him it was only a matter of time until he had a stroke if he didn’t take medication.

Treating patients in such serious need of care makes him feel like he’s really contributing, Dave said. When he works in UCLA hospitals, his patients are somewhat self-selecting, he said — only patients with insurance come in.

“Normally we see people who are doing things right and who have plenty of resources,” Dave said. “Today is special because we get to help the people who need help the most. It’s a little concerning because we’re seeing the big problem with health care in America. With so many resources, how are we finding so many people here today who have nowhere else to turn?”

But there was a silver lining, he noted: For Dave’s students, who normally see relatively healthy patients, the free clinic gave them months’ worth of experience examining different health problems in a few days.

Virginia Lalata was one of hundreds at the clinic on Friday who came for glasses and other eye care. After using hand-me-down glasses for years, she now needed a new prescription. “Without this, I don’t know what I’d do,” she said.

Lalata was one of about 500 vision patients over the weekend who received follow-up screenings from ophthalmologists in UCLA’s Mobile Eye Clinic for cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and other eye disorders. UCLA selected 10 lucky patients for free eye surgery at the Jules Stein Eye Institute, said Faye Oelrich, the mobile clinic’s program manager.

“We’re seeing so many people whose vision has been blurry for years,” Oelrich said. “One of our most touching cases was a young woman who has had a crossed eye since childhood, which you could tell she was very self-conscious about. She came to tears when we told her we could correct her eye with free surgery.”

That wasn’t the only case of tears, Oelrich continued.

“I had another woman yesterday who has needed cataract surgery for years,” she said. “She wouldn’t have been able to pass the eye exam at the DMV, even with glasses, but she can’t afford surgery. She didn’t speak much English, but broke down sobbing when she understood we would give her the surgery, and said, ‘I’m crying because I’m so happy.’”

Several of the two dozen ophthalmologists volunteering at the clinic signed up for extra shifts, Oelrich said. “The work is so gratifying,” she said.

Dr. Laura Syniuta, an ophthalmologist with the mobile clinic, agreed.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to make a difference to people with no other options right now,” Syniuta said. “I’m so proud of my colleagues.”

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