Medical students are often attracted to dentistry because they know they won't have to deal with life-or-death situations. But that's not the case for Jim Formaker. Since 1987, when he became the director of the Green/LeBaron Dental Clinic, 689 of his patients have died. "That's more than most dentists lose in a lifetime," he says. "It's depressing."
The high fatality rate is not surprising considering that Formaker's clinic exclusively serves patients who have AIDS. Though it is illegal for dentists to refuse to treat HIV-positive patients, many do, and rejected patients rarely have the energy or inclination to prosecute. And so they find their way to Formaker's five-chair clinic, located at the AIDS Project Los Angeles headquarters in Hollywood. Records for a recent month indicate that the clinic performed 724 procedures on 345 clients, all at no cost to the patients; Medicare, Medi-Cal and insurance pay for most treatment, and APLA picks up the rest. "I'm here three days a week, and then in my private practice three days a week," he says. "On any given day there are two to three dentists and one volunteer."
Formaker, who began volunteering at the clinic in 1985, has seen the clientele evolve dramatically. "When I started, it was 99% white gay guys. Now we're seeing more people of color, a lot more women, more heterosexuals."