By Laura Ohata
Northwest Asian Weekly
Seventy dental drills whined on the Key Arena floor, as volunteer dentists and hygienists provided free procedures to the poorest residents of Seattle. In addition to dentistry, roughly 600 volunteers offered medical, vision, chiropractic, acupuncture, and mental health services to nearly 4,000 patients from Oct. 23 to Oct. 26.
It takes a concerted effort and serious teamwork to host a free clinic of that scale. The idea originated with Julia Colson.
“Back in 2008, I saw a “60 Minutes” documentary on Remote Area Medical, [an organization] which goes around the country and does events like this.” Colson especially wanted to serve the working poor, who couldn’t afford routine medical care. The idea sat in the back of her mind until 2012, when Seattle Center Director Robert Nellams challenged his staff to look at new ways to use the facilities, such as health programs for the community. That’s when Colson showed him the 60 Minutes documentary. After gaining Nellams’ approval, she contacted Remote Area Medical (RAM) and began to build her team.
RAM provides mobile dental and vision laboratories and equipment, but it is up to the host community to provide the location and licensed medical staff. Colson and Nellams had the Seattle Center, but they needed healthcare experts to plan the technical aspects of the free clinic. They brought together dozens of partner organizations. Group Health offered a lab and flu shots, while Phillips Healthcare loaned staff, [along with] EKG, ultrasound, and X-ray equipment. Colson said, “The dental community has just turned out in force. On the medical side, we are doing physical exams, and women’s health exams, including pap smears and mammogram tests by Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Brooks Shoes donated 3,900 pairs of shoes. Organizations like that, wanting to make a difference, wanting to help others in their community.”
RAM had a mobile optical lab that made about 300 prescription eyeglasses on-site each day. “They bring in new frames and about 10,000 prescription lenses,” said Colson, “So, patients get full eye exams, and if they need glasses, we can make them glasses. And, all of this is free for the patients.” While waiting in line for an eye examination, a jobless Asian American woman in her mid-20s offered an interview, but would not give her name. “Getting new glasses will affect my life tremendously, just because I will be able to see. I won’t be going off of a prescription that was several years expired. I won’t have to force my eyes to see with glasses that no longer work.” When asked what kind of job she would like to get, she said, “Anything with benefits,” and laughs, “Even with a four-year degree, it is very hard to find a good job with benefits. Even with a business degree, which is what I have, they are trying to bring in people who are temporary or part-time, where they can offer the minimum benefits.”
“There was a general misperception after implementation of the Affordable Care Act that uncompensated care, and particularly in such a wealthy community as Seattle/King County, was no longer necessary,” said Christine Lindquist, executive director of Washington Healthcare Access Alliance, a network of free and charitable clinics in Seattle. “But … there are still a huge number of people who are underserved, or they are un-served. We are talking about immigrants who have legally been in the United States for five years or less, undocumented immigrants, or individuals on expanded Medicaid. But there are no Medicaid providers, so they in fact have insurance, but they don’t have anyone who will accept their insurance. … There are still a lot of people who don’t have access to healthcare for various reasons… Those problems, small problems, the need for a tooth being filled, not being met, become very large problems like an abscess, and a possible infection to the brain. People die because they don’t have access to reliable high quality, affordable healthcare. And, there are a lot of preventive treatments that could … keep them out of the emergency rooms.”
Volunteers distributed tickets in the middle of the night on a first-come, first-serve basis, each day of the event. “I got here at 12:30 a.m.,” said Eric Perry, a patient at the clinic. “I was number 110. We waited until 3:30 a.m. when they gave us numbers.” In spite of the large number of volunteers, some patients were turned away due to high demand for the free health services.
Patients who did make it into the free clinic had positive things to say. “I just had a root canal done,” said Perry.
“Yesterday was my birthday. Coming here was the best birthday present I could have gotten.” Annie Rivera had two broken molars that went untreated for two years. “I cannot smile. People think I am angry, but I am so embarrassed because I can’t show my teeth. I had an infection,” Rivera points to both sides at the back of her jaw. Rivera worked at a pharmacy for many years, but she couldn’t afford dental care. “They paid me $9 [an hour],” said Rivera. “But, you have to pay rent. Food is expensive now.”
Norman Beauchamp, chairman of the University of Washington Department of Radiology and medical director of the free clinic, said, “I would like to see us do this for a few more years with the support of the community. “
After a very busy morning helping patients, Beauchamp leaned up against a wall to take a break. Then, someone started rubbing his shoulders. “I looked up at the sign outside the chiropractor’s door and thought, ‘How fortunate that I leaned against the wall near chiropractic.’” After about 30 seconds, he turned around to thank the chiropractor, but it was a patient who was living in a homeless shelter. Beauchamp tried to thank her, but she said, “No, I am the one who is thankful, although I couldn’t pay for the chiropractor who just helped me, I wanted to help someone else.” Beauchamp said, “To me, it is apparent that the good done by this clinic will go well beyond our experience today, and have an impact on the community, as people pay it forward, as that woman so kindly did for me.” (end)
Laura Ohata can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.