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How L.A.'s massive free clinic event came together

A record producer and his wife saw a TV piece on the Remote Area Medical Foundation and contacted the founder. The couple used their connections and pieces fell into place. Thousands have been helped at the Forum.

August 16, 2009|Kimi Yoshino

The doors to the Forum in Inglewood opened Tuesday to a massive mobile hospital, the largest and longest-running free clinic ever attempted in the 25-year history of Remote Area Medical, a Tennessee-based nonprofit foundation more accustomed to serving rural America.

Through Friday, 3,010 patients had been served, many waiting for hours and some sleeping overnight in their cars for a chance at a free exam. In the first four days of the clinic's eight-day run, the foundation provided 2,054 fillings, performed 1,033 tooth extractions and 236 mammograms and doled out more than 739 eyeglasses.

In all, an estimated $500,000 in care has been provided daily to patients granted appointments on a first-come, first-served basis. Despite the pace, hundreds of uninsured and underinsured people have been turned away. Organizers lament that they could treat more if additional dentists and eye doctors showed up to volunteer in the clinic's remaining few days.

In true Hollywood fashion, the seed for the event was sown by a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame record executive and his wife, who saw a on the group's work and posed a question: Would the foundation consider coming to L.A.?

The group has spent a quarter century delivering free medical services to some of the neediest and remotest areas of the country, including Appalachia. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the group set up at a zoo in New Orleans to serve residents.

Los Angeles is by far the biggest metropolitan area ever served by the group. This is also the first time the foundation -- more familiar with county fairgrounds -- has set up operation in an arena, the event sandwiched in the schedule between a rave and a rock concert.

But even in an urban setting, organizers point out that access to care can seem remote. In Los Angeles County, home to nearly 10 million people, about 22% of working-age adults lack insurance, according to a survey conducted two years ago before the economic plunge.

As soon as she found out about the free healthcare, Elizabeth Sims, 46, of Los Angeles rushed to the Forum -- packing a suitcase with a blanket, clothes, "deodorant and everything" -- so she could see a gynecologist. Last year, Sims received an abnormal Pap smear result but said her Medi-Cal application was denied and she has not had the means to follow up.

"I found out about this and I thought it was a blessing from God," Sims said as she waited for her appointment. "I barely got in. I camped out all night. I will be very happy to get that stress off me."

These types of tales from the uninsured are what motivated Jerry Moss, co-founder of A&M Records, and his wife, Ann, to reach out last year to Remote Area Medical founder Stan Brock after seeing the group featured on "60 Minutes."

"We were both so moved that we wanted to see how we could get involved," said Ann Moss, who together with her husband has been a longtime supporter of the Saban Free Clinic in Los Angeles. "We sent him some money and threw out the suggestion that if they ever wanted to come to Los Angeles, to let us know."

By February, the seed planted with Brock had paid off. He sent Moss a letter: It was time to come to Los Angeles. Would Moss help?

The couple mailed DVDs with the "60 Minutes" segment to 40 to 50 "well-placed people," including doctors, politicians and philanthropists. They got backing from Maria Shriver and persuaded friend and Ticketmaster chief Irving Azoff to grease the wheels at the Forum, where one phone call was enough to persuade the building's owners, Faithful Central Bible Church and Forum Enterprises Inc., to offer free use of the space.

Brock, a former star of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom," hit up an old pal from the show, Don Manelli, who took on the role of the Los Angeles expedition's chief producer.

Five area dental societies pledged volunteer dentists. Hospital groups such as Catholic Healthcare West offered support. And Manelli began obtaining permit after permit, getting approvals for everything from dealing with medical waste to food preparation. Fire officials signed off on the plan. An ambulance agreed to be on full-time standby.

"I've done big shows, and a film production is kind of wild too," said Manelli, who owns a production company. "But nothing like this. The stakes are a lot higher."

Back at the foundation's headquarters in Tennessee, the nuts and bolts of the operation began heading West. Veteran volunteers Thom and Judy Dandridge hauled a double-decker, 54-foot trailer loaded with 72,000 pounds of medical equipment the 2,200 miles from Knoxville.

"It was about $1 million running down the road," Thom Dandridge said. Inside: 70 drawers filled with 10,000 eyeglass lenses, dozens of mobile dental stations, enough vision equipment to test and treat 10 patients at a time and two colposcopes used in gynecological exams. Their 14-year-old chocolate Labrador came along for the 3 1/2 -day journey.

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