Catharine Joseph was the first of about 5,000 people to stand in line Monday… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)
Nearly 5,000 people with toothaches, blurry vision and other health problems lined up outside the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Monday to receive a plastic wristband, their ticket to a massive free medical clinic beginning later this week.
The clinic, organized by the nonprofit, L.A.-based CareNow, will run Thursday through Sunday and include volunteer services by cardiologists, dentists, podiatrists and other medical professionals.
Among those waiting in line early Monday was Carol Crawford, 60, who worried that she might have breast cancer. She recently visited a hospital emergency room because of pain, and she received medication but not a mammogram. Crawford, whose mother died of breast cancer, said she had been out of work since March and couldn't afford to go to a doctor for further tests.
"Who would want to see me if I don't have any money?" she said. "I'm so grateful that I'm gonna be able to be seen."
Many of those in line were unemployed and uninsured, while others had jobs that didn't include health coverage. Others had Medi-Cal, the government health program for the poor, which doesn't cover most dental work. Still others were illegal immigrants who only qualified for emergency care.
Karina Tench, a 27-year-old uninsured nursing student, has had several seizures over the last year but didn't know why. Each time, she went to the emergency room at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, but she is still waiting to see a neurologist. "I hope to be seen and know what's going on," she said.
CareNow President Don Manelli said that no one should have to stand in line for basic healthcare, but he was pleased that hundreds of people had volunteered to help. Manelli said that in addition to receiving free health services, patients would receive information about preventive care and would be connected to local clinics for follow-up.
"Our goal is to make sure the people in line now are not in line a year from now," he said.
Patients began arriving Sunday morning, and many camped overnight in front of the Sports Arena. By 7 a.m., more than 1,000 waited, sitting on folding chairs and huddled under blankets. The line continued to grow as the morning went on, and the heat became unbearable for some.
"When people are here at the crack of dawn, it makes the point in a very demonstrative way that there is an increased need for health services for the uninsured and underinsured," said L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
About 11:30 a.m., volunteers began distributing the color-coded wristbands.
"What's the earliest I can come on Thursday?" asked Rose Johnson Brown, 63, as a volunteer attached her band.
"Seven a.m.," the woman responded.
"Good. I'll be here," said Brown, who said she was laid off from her job two years ago and suffers from diabetes, poor vision and leg pain.
After receiving her wristband, Patricia Hopkins, 48, waved her arm in the air.
"I got my band," said Hopkins, who is unemployed and has gum pain and swollen knees. "I slept outside all day yesterday. It paid off."
While their medical needs were varied, many patients-to-be said they needed to see a dentist. Dentists and hygienists would be on hand to do cleanings, fillings and extractions but didn't have the time or resources to do much more, said Roger Fieldman, the clinic's dental director.
"What we can do is address their most basic dental needs," he said. "But they need a lot of extensive dental care."
That was the reason that Sergio Hidalgo, his wife and their two teenage daughters were waiting in line. One daughter had a hole in one of her teeth, his wife had inflamed gums and all four had pain. The family tried to come to the clinic last year but didn't arrive early enough to get in.
Gladys and Antonio Menendez, who live in Los Angeles, also hoped to see a dentist. She works as a housekeeper and he as a mechanic but neither has insurance or enough money for dental care.
"It's really expensive," she said. "A week's pay won't even cover a filling."