The dental area is a scene of perpetual motion on the first day of the CareNow… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)
Mary Bruitt saw the sign that read "Want to quit smoking?" and walked up to the table.
She had been smoking for more than 30 years and had tried to stop before. But now, Bruitt said she was determined to give up the daily pack of cigarettes. "I got my teeth cleaned, and I want them to stay clean," she said, smiling.
"You have grandchildren?" nurse Dior Hildebrand asked her. "Let's try to quit for them."
Bruitt, 62, came to the free clinic at the L.A. Sports Arena on Thursday morning for dental care. But in addition to seeing a dentist, she also left with a month's supply of nicotine patches and the phone number of a help line.
Bruitt's experience underscores a new goal of this year's clinic: prevention.
Amid makeshift exam rooms and rows of dental chairs, the Sports Arena has been transformed into an enormous health fair. While waiting for treatment, patients watch videos about how to brush their teeth and learn about the amount of sugar in soda. They receive vaccinations and read fliers about healthy eating and exercise.
The event, organized by the L.A.-based nonprofit CareNow, will run through Sunday and expects to treat 5,000 patients for high blood pressure, tooth decay and diabetes. President Don Manelli said his goal was to meet the immediate needs of the patients but also to have an "enduring impact" on their health to keep them from returning next year. Much of that, he said, is done through education.
"A lot of what we see out here is preventable," Manelli said.
Carlos Mansilla, 47, an unemployed and uninsured warehouse worker from the Pico-Union neighborhood, has diabetes and hypertension. During the event, volunteers gave him a glucose meter, showed him how to use it and told him that he needed to take his medication daily to keep both under control.
"If you have high blood pressure, it can give you a stroke, a heart attack and can damage your kidneys," said Jose Alexander Chavez, a Salvadoran doctor in school at UCLA. "It's dangerous."
In addition to adding counselors and exhibits on prevention, CareNow is also working to connect patients with local providers for follow-up treatment. As patients left, representatives of local clinics took down their contact information.
Michael Montes, 52, left Thursday morning with an appointment for later that same day. In an exam, a dermatologist had found skin cancer on Montes' back and told him he could come to the doctor's Los Angeles office to have it removed.
Montes, an unemployed construction worker from San Bernardino, said he hadn't been to a doctor in decades and decided at the last minute to go to the medical area after getting his teeth cleaned.
"I'm lucky I did," he said. "I feel blessed."
The clinic, which is staffed by volunteer doctors, dentists, optometrists, nurses and other medical professionals, attempts to fill a gap in care for people who either lack insurance or have insurance that doesn't cover dental or vision care. About 2.2 million county residents are uninsured.
"This is meeting a huge, huge need," said L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Not everybody could be treated at the clinic, however. One man complaining of chest pains fainted and was taken to a local hospital. "This is not an emergency room," said Natalie Nevins, the medical director for the clinic.
Yolonda Brinkley, 41, who has her own marketing company, is among the county's uninsured. Her coverage from a previous job expired in July 2010. On Thursday, she had a mammogram, got a cavity filled and had a physical and a flu shot.
"Whatever is complimentary, I'm gonna take advantage of," she said.
Byron Worthy, 50, who lives in Granada Hills, came to the clinic to get new glasses. He struggled to read the letters during his eye exam and told a volunteer that he was wearing glasses he received eight years ago.
Worthy, whose only income comes from collecting scrap metal and cutting neighbors' hair, said he only slept a few hours Wednesday night because he didn't want to be late. With arthritis, high cholesterol, hypertension, stomach pains and headaches, Worthy said he was worried about his health.
In addition to seeing doctors, Worthy said he planned to visit some of the health booths.
"I'm gonna take a cruise around the location and see what else they have in store for me," he said.