Health + Behavior

Nearly 200 UCLA volunteers treat the uninsured at the annual Care Harbor free clinic

The annual event in downtown Los Angeles offers essential basic services to those in need

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UCLA volunteer at Care Harbor 2018
Richard Cassel/UCLA

UCLA volunteers treated nearly 1,700 people who were treated at the three-day Care Harbor clinic.

When Andre Buchanan was 12, he fell from a tree and destroyed a front tooth. Although a dentist fixed the tooth at the time, it deteriorated over the many years since and two years ago the now adult Buchanan had only a nub for a tooth.

Each year at family events, his mother would nag him about the tooth. “Boy,” she’d tell him, “you ain’t fixed that tooth yet?’”

Then Andre heard about the annual Care Harbor clinic in downtown Los Angeles that provides free health, dental and eye care to people who don’t have access to it. He emerged with a perfect new tooth that he proudly showed off. He got it just in time for his mother’s 70th birthday celebration.

“I had no tooth and now I have one,” he said. “Now I have a smile again.”

Buchanan was among about 1,700 people who were treated at the three-day Care Harbor clinic from Oct. 13 to 15 at The Reef in downtown Los Angeles. The clinic staff included nearly 200 volunteers from UCLA, including internal medicine physicians, dentists, optometrists and nurses who served patients with conditions ranging from the relatively mundane to the serious. Care Harbor is a charity that provides free medical, dental and vision care to the underinsured and underserved.

UCLA has participated in the event for eight years and will likely continue to do because there remains a need for such clinics, said Dr. Patrick Dowling, chair of the family medicine department and one of the organizers of the UCLA contingent.

“We need all hands on deck here,” he said. “UCLA will continue to be here until every person has access to healthcare.”

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UCLA has been involved with Care Harbor “from day one it’s been in Los Angeles,” said Dr. Michelle Bholat, executive vice chair of family medicine and executive director of the UCLA International Medical Graduate Program.

“This event, as it’s evolved over time, continues to inspire everyone that comes here,” Bholat said. “The enthusiasm that we see with our young future physicians, podiatrists and every type of health care professional, including lay volunteers, is palpable and exciting.”

Most important, she added, is “the appreciation that patients have stated to us that it’s wonderful to be in a place where people care, and people take care of me.”

Dr. Edmond Hewlett, professor of restorative dentistry and associate dean for outreach and diversity at the UCLA School of Dentistry, said he looks forward to attending Care Harbor to provide much needed care for people in the community.

“We’re able to provide dental care to underserved Angelenos and our pre-doctoral students and residents are exposed to the needs of the community, which will hopefully create a lifetime desire of volunteering,” Hewlett said.

All volunteers play important roles at Care Harbor, and their time and efforts can have a significant impact on the community, noted Carolyn Cunningham, a family nurse practitioner and lecturer at the UCLA School of Nursing.

The nurses see people with complaints such as low back pain, headaches, dizziness and infections that might otherwise take a long time “to be plugged into the system,” she said.

“This gives them an opportunity to understand where to go, how to follow up and continue the care we started here,” Cunningham said.

Many people rely on the annual clinic for their eye care, including new glasses that they otherwise could not afford to buy, and a contingent from the UCLA Stein Eye Institute also participated.

UCLA specialists also served people with more serious conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration, who were given referrals to seek more extensive treatment before it became too late to save their vision.

“We feel very good that we can send them on for care before they get to a point of no return for their vision,” said Dr. JoAnn Giaconi, an associate professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and an ophthalmologist at the UCLA Stein Eye Institute.

Many of the people who visit the clinic speak only Spanish or have limited English capability, and those people were aided by students from the UCLA International Medical Graduate Program, who served as interpreters. The program helps legal U.S. residents who have graduated from Latin American medical schools earn California medical licenses. Those in the program cannot yet practice medicine in California, but they fill an important role at the clinic by, in Bholat’s words, “building a cultural and language connection that is so crucial.”

One program participant who served as an interpreter was George Lewis, who was born in Los Angeles but grew up and studied medicine in Peru. The first thing he saw when he arrived at the Care Harbor clinic was a long line of people waiting in the rain to get in.

“We as physicians know that there’s a huge community of people that have diseases and they don’t even know about it, so to be able to screen and detect those patients, and this redirection — to further care — that we’re doing here, is so crucial,” Lewis said.  “It can make a huge impact on the rest of their lives.”

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