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'Angels Without Wings' Fly to Aid the Sick in Baja

August 02, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

A procession of small airplanes appears from the north, alighting one by one on a desolate airstrip in a dusty field in Baja California. Out step two dozen Americans, carrying leather bags and medical supplies. They pause to get their bearings, then move away from the field.

This is no pleasure outing. It's another monthly visit from the Flying Samaritans, who bring medical services to the needy in some remote areas south of the border.

"When all of a sudden, everybody congregates out there in the same place, ready to go--that's a good feeling," said Sam Hernandez, an estimator for a Pasadena general contractor who serves as a coordinator for the group. "It's like a flight of angels."

That's what a lot of Baja residents say, too. Los angeles sin alas (the angels without wings), as some Bajenos call the American volunteers, have been making their monthly flights for 26 years, and they have made a difference in some of the Mexican state's fishing villages and agricultural outposts.

There are nine chapters of Flying Samaritans, involving about 1,500 volunteers from California, Arizona and Mexico. They run 25 fly-in clinics in remote areas of Baja. The largest chapter is the Foothill chapter, with a membership of about 400 medical and non-medical volunteers from the Los Angeles area--many of them from the San Gabriel Valley.

"I think a lot of us have passed from the 'Me Generation' to an 'us-as-the-world' idea," says Leslie Spring, president of the chapter.

The volunteers clean teeth, examine eyes, manipulate vertebrae, remove foot calluses, give vaccinations and perform many other medical procedures in the little outposts, chipping in their own money to get there.

"The people who come to see us can't afford to get medical services elsewhere," says Dr. Charles Tannenbaum, an Arcadia ophthalmologist, who has been flying his own Beech Bonanza to Baja on mercy missions for the past six years. "In fact, in two out of the three locations I go, there are no medical services at all."

Some patients are even transported, free of charge, back to the United States for surgical procedures in charitable hospitals. For example, Tannenbaum has gotten the backing of Santa Teresita Hospital in Duarte, which often contributes bed space for needy Bajenos who need surgery to remove cataracts or to correct other problems. The doctor has performed more than a dozen operations there on patients from Baja in the past three years.

Santa Teresita seemed a likely place to ask for help, says Tannenbaum, who has been a member of its medical staff for 20 years.

"The hospital has a history and reputation for personalized service," he said, "and their background is in Mexico." The hospital was founded 57 years ago by members of the Carmelite order, Catholic nuns who had escaped religious persecution in Mexico.

For medical professionals accustomed to having the most modern equipment in their San Gabriel Valley offices, conditions in Baja communities are sometimes less than basic. "It's a Third World country, of course, and they lack a lot of the niceties," says Tannenbaum--including, in many cases, running water and electricity.

"We have to bring bottled water to wash our hands and our instruments," says Spring, who serves as coordinator of a clinic in San Telmo, a tiny settlement about 100 miles south of Ensenada. "We have a small generator for power."

Unpredictable Problems

Dr. Larry Biederman, a Covina podiatrist, tells of the unpredictable difficulties involved in treating a young lame woman with a damaged tendon in one foot. Minor bone surgery to rebuild the woman's arch was performed last January in a gulf community called Bahia de los Angeles.

"We had to use a dental X-ray machine to get a picture of the foot, with the patient standing on a dental chair," he said. "Then one of the women had to go down the street, knocking on doors, to borrow some pans to develop the X-rays."

Biederman decided to operate right there in the clinic on the woman, who had been walking on the side of her foot since she was a small child. "We scrubbed the walls and the ceiling with antiseptics and finished the job with ammonia," he said. "We got everything set up and waited for the electricity to go on."

Hernandez, the coordinator for the Bahia de los Angeles clinic, discovered that the town generator had run out of fuel. He purchased some diesel fuel from a local hotel, and the electricity was turned on.

"We got into surgery, and everything was going pretty smoothly until all of a sudden the lights went off again," Biederman recalled. The podiatrist, using an electrical saw, had already begun cutting into the patient's bone. As Biederman proceeded with manual instruments, his assistants holding flashlights in the makeshift operating room, Hernandez rushed back to the town power plant.

Lunch Break

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