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Free medical clinic runs short of dental appointments

April 27, 2010 |  5:38 pm

Overwhelmed by demand for dental services among the more than 1,000 patients at the massive free medical clinic at Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena Tuesday, organizers asked about 115 patients to return next week.  Mn14_l1k4b9nc

The patients, many of whom had waited hours for dental services, were given gray wristbands entitling them to be treated first on Monday, the final day of the seven-day free clinic.    

"We got slammed in dental," said Don Manelli, an organizer with clinic sponsor Remote Area Medical, a Tennessee-based nonprofit. "We'll catch up with most of them."

Esther Thomas, 61, of Los Angeles, a retired elementary school teacher, had a medical checkup, then waited four hours before she was told to return.

"It started out real cool, but they lost control," Thomas said.

She said she plans to return Monday in the hopes of getting her 20-year-old partial dentures replaced. A volunteer explained that the clinic is not replacing dentures, and although they may repair them, even that is not guaranteed.

Many patients waited hours for dental services the clinic does not offer, or had offered in the past but does not now.

Given the limited time and the high volume of patients, dentists at the clinic had been instructed to offer each patient only one service: either a teeth cleaning, extraction or filling.

But in practice, many of the roughly 110 dentists, dental students and hygienists had difficulty refusing patients in need of multiple services. The compassion resulted in delays, organizers said.

With fewer dentists registered to volunteer at the clinic Wednesday, organizers said they will again try to limit services to allow more patients to get help.

"We'll have to be more strict," said Roger Fieldman, volunteer dental director and president of the Los Angeles Oral Health Foundation. "But how do you tell someone who sees this person in need, and gets pleasure from helping them, to say no?"

Some of the demand Tuesday was also due to misinformation.

Many patients came looking for cosmetic dentistry: new dentures, partial dentures, bridges and crowns, none of which are offered at the clinic. Similar services were offered during the first clinic, at the Forum in August, but they proved too time-consuming, Fieldman said.

He said the arena clinic may offer limited repairs for dental needs, but patients cannot count on those services.

Many at the clinic wanted molar root canals, which the clinic also does not offer. Fieldman said clinic dentists are performing some very limited root canals for other teeth, but not molars because they have multiple roots that require added time, equipment and expertise.

Click map to get directions to the free

 health clinic at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Source: Google maps

The final 1,200 wristbands needed for appointments will be distributed Wednesday at 10 a.m. outside the arena, a spokeswoman said. By Tuesday afternoon, about 50 people had lined up on Figueroa Street.

At the front was Teresa Serna, 48, of Victorville. The unemployed grocery clerk had arrived Monday at 8 p.m. in search of a root canal and fillings, waited overnight and planned to stay Tuesday night as well. Her husband Jesse Serna, 51, a disabled warehouse worker, was also waiting for dental care.

He looked down the steadily growing line and assessed the state of healthcare in America.

"We need it badly," Serna said. "We send people overseas when there's a disaster. This is a disaster right here."

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

Photos: (from top) Remote Area Medical opens its clinic Tuesday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Alisha Brown, left, and Don LaZaire try on free glasses at the clinic. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Click to get directions. Source: Google maps

Click for complete Times coverage of the free clinic