She held her composure as she told me about her four-year degree in accounting and the good job she had for years, but as I gently probed further, with only the privacy of thin curtains around us, tears gradually filled her eyes. Alcohol use had gradually consumed her life and she had been disowned by her children. The tears finally overflowed when she told me she had heard that her daughter had just married, and she hadn’t even received an invitation. Now she was homeless in Phoenix, thankful for the air mattress she had just found, with barely enough blankets to protect her against the cold nights. It was clearly not a time to lecture on the dangers of alcohol use or the virtues of good nutrition and exercise. This was life on the edge — the delicate balance between survival and death, the constant search for food and shelter, the plight of too many Americans today.
I met her over Christmas while volunteering for three days at the “Your Best Pathway to Health” event in Phoenix. The organization arranged to take over the Phoenix Coliseum, recruited 3,300 volunteers from across the country to work December 25-27 and saw almost 7,000 patients. This tremendous effort was spearheaded by my friend, Lela Lewis, MD, a 2001 graduate of the Loma Linda University School of Medicine. Commitment to serve the uninsured is a major initiative of Adventist professionals, who give their personal time at their own expense. This event was the sixth or seventh such event that took place in different cities over the last few years through this program. I wanted to see what happens from the inside. So along with some 400 providers, I signed up to participate as another physician seeing patients.
It was an immense operation, with large sections of the coliseum floor separated into functional curtained units for dentistry, mental health, primary care, cardiology, surgery, women’s health, lifestyle counseling, barber shop and beauty salon, pharmacy, lab and more. Thousands of patients came each day for lab tests, X-rays, donated medication, clothes, and other services — all provided for free. But it seemed clear to me that the most important and powerful part of the event was the personal time that each patient was able to spend with someone who had the time to listen and care .
The place was filled with Loma Linda University alumni from many disciplines, together with many other professionals, all coming together in a common commitment to serve. There were seven doctors from our own School of Medicine class of 1990 — accomplished professionals who took time away from their families and work to volunteer over Christmas for those few days. It certainly is part of our culture, our raison d’etre. The fact that it speaks to so many volunteers, time and again, seems to confirm the value we feel in participation.
The homeless were just a minor part of the patient flow. Phoenix is also home to many refugees from other countries, seeking to make their way in a world of strange customs and a different language with confusing instructions. Families who were crowded into small apartments came for routine care, consumed by the never-ending search for jobs and income. While they were thankful to be here in America, they greatly missed their relatives and customs back home. The list of countries made me homesick for my own travels and allowed me to refresh both my medical Spanish and Swahili. There were many from Mexico, but also from El Salvador, Guatemala, Congo, Rwanda, and other countries from Central America and Africa. America is still the beacon to the world, for the “huddled masses yearning to be free.”
The lines for the free clinic also reaffirm in my mind the tremendous holes we have in our national health care system. So many have no access to care, and many just want to talk to someone who cares.
One of my last patients was a young man, very nervous and needing privacy to share his story. He had been married for just a year and he confided that they had not yet consummated their marriage. He tried to pass this off as being OK, but seemed uncertain about his own sexuality and indeed whether he was normal or suffering from some unknown disease. As with many others I saw, he had a regular job but no insurance and no place or person to confide in about this most private of issues. I certainly didn’t solve all of his concerns, but sensed how grateful he was to be able to finally share this deeply held fear with someone, even a stranger.
The long drive back home to California with Judy gave me time to reflect on why we do these things, and if they have any lasting impact. There are still homeless in Phoenix searching for food and shelter, and those who are still looking for assimilation into this country’s bounties. Was a brief interlude from their struggles worth the time and expense invested? I know those who had a rotten tooth pulled or a hernia repaired will be forever thankful. But the brief supply of diabetes or hypertensive meds given out will soon be finished, and the worry and search for more will begin again.
I can only hope and pray that we, as a nation, can do better balancing our great resources with those in need of basic health care.
Thank you, Lela, and your amazing colleagues, for the three days of giving renewed hope to thousands through brief interactions with their fellow travelers on this earth.
Richard H. Hart, MD, DrPH, is president of Loma Linda University Health. This article originally appeared in the January 2018 edition of Dr. Hart’s monthly column “Notes from the President.” It is reprinted here with permission.
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