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PALM LATITUDES

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April 12, 1992|Jerry Lazar

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."

Although there is a risk of exposure, Formaker refuses to give in to AIDS paranoia. "There's a universal way to protect yourself from everything, from syphilis to HIV," he declares. "You always wear gloves, masks, glasses."

Despite the psychic toll of dealing with so many terminal patients, Forman says the mood is far from funereal. "I try to keep a very light atmosphere here," he says. "There's always a lot of joking going on. I tease patients a lot. We never get real serious. I'm not a real serious guy."

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