By Alison Hewitt
Aimeé Villareal, 23, from Hollywood, arrived at 6 a.m. so she could see a doctor for the first time in two years. She had spent the past year worrying about a growing lump on her wrist, fearing the worst because her mother has cancer. But she couldn't afford insurance. After five hours in lines - the line to get in, the check-in line, the triage line - she met Peter Kierstead, a UCLA medical student, and Dr. Michael Rodriguez, a professor in UCLA's Department of Family Medicine, two of the roughly 100 UCLA volunteer health-care staff working at the clinic.
"I don't believe it is cancer," Rodriguez said after a cursory examination in one of a row of exam "rooms" divided up by curtains. The lump's location, away from lymph nodes, and the lack of a fever were excellent signs, he said. "I know it can be scary when you don't know what's going on, but I want to reassure you that this is not worrying to me. You don't need to be scared. It's probably just a cyst, and we can refer you to a low-cost clinic if you want it removed."
From Westwood came pediatricians, internists, OB/GYNs, laboratory technicians, urologists, radiologists, dentists, ophthalmologists and optometrists, to name just a few of the medical specialists. The university also sent the UCLA Mobile Eye Clinic, a donation of lab test equipment, including 400 pregnancy tests and 4,000 urine dipsticks, and a donation of $5,000 worth of urological supplies. The weeklong RAM/LA clinic strives to serve 1,200 patients each day. For many, it's their only chance to see a primary care doctor, a dentist, an ophthalmologist and other specialists. Folding, reclining dental chairs lay side by side in plain view, with dentists working busily in patients' mouths under the stadium lights. A few feet away, patients still in line watch from seating areas marked "Cleanings," "Fillings" and "Extractions."
UCLA RV parked at the opposite end of the arena floor housed two ophthalmology examination rooms. Tucked under the bleachers were 40 UCLA doctors and medical students working side-by-side in curtained exam rooms in the general medicine area. Volunteering in the community is part of the UCLA mission, said Dr. A. Eugene Washington, vice chancellor of health sciences and dean of the Geffen School of Medicine, who fully supported the clinic, along with Dr. Alan Robinson, associate vice chancellor of medical sciences and executive associate dean of the medical school. "I am delighted that UCLA is participating in RAM Los Angeles 2010," Washington said. "This is highly consistent with our vision of leveraging all of the remarkable intellectual resources in the David Geffen School of Medicine and the UCLA Health to improve the health of our communities." Dr. Denise Sur, a UCLA professor who runs the residency program in the Department of Family Medicine, hopes that RAM/LA will help raise awareness about how dire health care needs are in L.A.'s backyard. "A lot of these folks are working full-time, and they still can't afford health coverage," Sur said. "Many of them have prescriptions for medicine, but they can't afford to buy it."
Dr. Lillian Gelberg, also in the family medicine department, said her first patient had been waiting at the arena for two days. "This is third-world," she said. "It's a tragedy that this is happening in the United States. People shouldn't have to line up like this." It feels good to help, Sur said. "My normal day involves seeing patients, but this is different. It's good to take care of people who wouldn't otherwise have it." On Wednesday, the RAM/LA clinic saw 1,103 patients, providing more than 500 dental visits, almost 100 pap smears, more than 50 mammograms, and about 500 eye exams. About 60 of the patients were children, organizers reported. Despite the long lines, patients seemed purely grateful, Rodriguez said. "They're waiting hours and hours. It's terribly sad, but then they are extremely grateful. They are relieved that someone can tell them what's going on. They all have this sense of uncertainty about their health." He railed against the number of people who have no other medical care to turn to. "This service is part of our mission, but we have to work to make this unnecessary. Patients shouldn't have to do this. It's unacceptable." Rodriguez knows all too well how those seeking help feel. He was once one of those patients, he added. "I had to wait in line. I was the interpreter for my mother," he said. "RAM also has clinics in third-world countries. That's the irony. We've got third-world conditions for health care right here."