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Patient Patients : Baja Villagers Are Willing to Wait for the Flying Samaritans, Who Keep Offering Free Monthly Medical and Dental Clinics Despite Summer Doldrums

August 30, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

PUNTA PRIETA, Mexico — The three women were the first to arrive. They extricated themselves from the crowded jitney that plies Highway 1 and stood there for a moment, gazing down a paved side road. A quarter of a mile away, where the pavement trailed off into a dusty track, stood a compound of white buildings. They appeared empty and abandoned.

"Will the Samaritanos be here today?" one of them asked a man standing nearby.

The man shrugged noncommittally.

The three, escaping the fierce Baja California sun, scurried toward a little grocery store with a shady terrace, settling on a bench to await the arrival of the Flying Samaritans. Members of the volunteer medical group's Foothill chapter, many of whose members are from the San Gabriel Valley, were due for a monthly visit, bringing free medical care for residents in and around this tiny settlement.

For many in the farms and outposts around Punta Prieta, the monthly clinics offer the only medical care available.

"Yes, we have our own doctors," deadpanned one of the women, Carolina Saldana, a 52-year-old resident of a cooperative farm 50 miles to the south. "Their patients die."

Saldana was there for a blood pressure condition and a swollen eye, and her 17-year-old daughter, Guillermina, had come for treatment of a sore back. Maria de la Paz, 68, a stocky woman in a flowered dress, hoped to have a couple of teeth pulled. "It has been throbbing for eight days now," she said, opening her mouth to point to the offending teeth.

Things move slowly in Punta Prieta, a collection of a dozen small buildings at a bend in the highway, about 480 miles south of Los Angeles. The women waited stolidly for two hours before a twin-engine Cessna 310 swooped down from above, veered to the south and settled onto the little military landing strip across the road. Shortly afterward, a single-engine Beech Debonaire flew in.

Seven Americans gathered on the strip and, holding boxes and bags of equipment, walked toward the compound, a state-owned highway maintenance facility. They had been delayed by some dicey weather to the north, they said.

Leading the way was Sam Hernandez, the earnest clinic coordinator, clucking nervously over his charges. So far, things were not going smoothly, he said. The August doldrums had struck. "All our doctors and dentists dropped out this time," he said. The group, which on past visits had included as many as three dozen medical specialists on a dozen airplanes, was left this time with two registered nurses, a dental hygienist, a medical assistant, two pilots and Hernandez.

But they would hold their clinic nevertheless, said Hernandez, an estimator for a Pasadena contractor. "We won't be able to pull any teeth," he said, "but we can do a lot of other things."

The small group was carrying on a 26-year tradition of charity. It began in 1961, when two San Diego women in an airplane were forced down by bad weather in El Rosario, about 100 miles northwest of Punta Prieta. The two, impressed by the generosity of the townspeople, returned with donations of food and clothing. They also brought along a doctor, who set up a makeshift clinic at a kitchen table.

Conditions have improved vastly at most of the 25 fly-in clinics now operated by about 1,500 "Sams," as the volunteers, who pay their own way and even chip in for airplane fuel, call themselves. All the clinics are filled with donated medical and dental equipment, and their shelves are laden with medicines.

But the one in Punta Prieta, run by the Foothill chapter, is probably the most primitive, Hernandez said. Housed in a small building with fiberboard walls and a corrugated roof, stifling under the assault of the sun, it lacks even running water or electricity. There are two small examining rooms, a dental room and a "pharmacy," which doubles as an examination room.

As the nurses got ready for business, pilot Roger Helizon, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer who flies out of the El Monte Airport, revved up a portable generator.

Word of the Samaritans' arrival spread quickly through the sleepy settlement. Before Hernandez's daughter, Diane, the clinic's clerk for that day, could begin compiling a list of patients and their ailments, a dozen people had congregated in front of the building.

Registered nurse Sharon Bogdanovic, ordinarily a risk management specialist for CIGNA Health Plans in Glendale, hustled the first patient, Carolina Saldana, to her command post at a table in the pharmacy, and the clinic was on its way. Bogdanovic poked and probed the patient, peering deeply into her eyes.

"It looks like an allergy to me," she said in American-inflected Spanish, talking over the roar of the generator. "If I give you medicine for the allergy, it will raise your blood pressure."

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