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Free health clinic runs out of appointments, too few medical volunteers cause delays

April 28, 2010 | 12:26 pm

By 11 a.m. Wednesday all appointments to a massive weeklong free health clinic were gone. Those left in line were turned away.

With more than 1,000 people waiting outside Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, organizers realized early that demand would exceed availability. 

Instead of 1,200 wristbands to distribute as they originally said, volunteers were left with only 750. The lower number was the result of significant overflow on the clinic's first day.

Despite staying open until 8 p.m., two hours later than scheduled, organizers said by day's end they had to ask 630 people to come back later for additional services.

Stan Brock, who founded the nonprofit Remote Area Medical, which organized the clinic, said a shortage of volunteers, particularly dentists, caused the overflow. Although the clinic has 94 dental chairs, Brock said 20 were empty much of Tuesday.

And even fewer dentists signed up to volunteer Wednesday and Thursday, he said. The experience on the first day raised questions about whether the clinic can meet it's daily goal of serving 1,200 patients.

Brock said the shortage of volunteers highlights the importance of pending state legislation that would allow out-of-state doctors to volunteer at the clinic.

"That is absolutely vital," he said. "I could have recruited another 20 or 30 volunteers and you know they're going to be here because they buy the airfare and take time off."

Some people waited overnight two days in a row for a chance at an appointment.

Fabrizio Mangandi, 41, was one of the lucky ones who got a wristband. The Ralph's grocery clerk lifted his shirt to reveal stitches. He recently had his gall bladder removed. His said after his insurance charged him a $5,000 deductible he could not afford to have the stitches removed.

"I'm already in debt," he said. "This is disaster relief."

Jeff Washington, 39, of Los Angeles and wife Lakishi Washington, 33, brought their 5-month-old son Ausar to the arena at about 8 a.m. They were turned away shortly before 11 a.m. when it was clear there would not be enough wristbands to go around.

The family does not have health insurance and had not seen a dentist or optometrist recently. The Washingtons said that without the clinic, the scores of people waiting behind them would probably just go without care.

Some ahead of them in line said the felt both fortunate for themselves and bad for those left out.

Eugene Martensen, 34, a disabled cabinet maker from San Pedro, got a wristband after waiting overnight. He surveyed the line of people who came later and were being told there was no more room, including would-be patients with canes, walkers and wheelchairs.

"It hurts me to see an elderly person left out and I get in," he said.

Organizers more than doubled their capacity to treat patients this year, from about 19 medical stations to 40 stations, said Dr. Natalie Nevins, the clinic's medical director. But the extra room does little good without volunteer medical professionals to fill it.

"We need optometrists and ophthalmologists desperately," Nevins said.

Of eight women's health rooms available Wednesday, only three had doctors volunteering, Nevins said.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske at the Los Angeles Memorial Arena

Video: Hundreds of patients make their way onto the floor of the Los Angeles Sports Arena for treatment on the first day of Remote Area Medical's second mobile clinic here. The clinics runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. through May 3. Credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times

Click for complete Times coverage of the free clinic