Free Cal Expo clinic requires healthy dose of volunteer effort

03/29/2012 12:00 AM

03/28/2012 10:42 PM

A massive public health clinic is coming to Cal Expo.

Starting Friday, hundreds of doctors, dentists and optometrists will descend there, find exam rooms and equipment and thousands of patients waiting for them, and provide as many services as they can in a four-day flurry of free health care.

They won't ask the patients for identification, insurance – or a dime.

The 3 1/2 full-time employees at the California Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons in Roseville are organizing the clinic, with help from a similarly small team at the Remote Area Medical Foundation national office in Tennessee.

Their workspace and time are borrowed from the surgeons' association.

"It's two full-time jobs right now," said Pamela Congdon, the association's executive director. "But you have that one patient who thanks you from the bottom of their heart, from every piece of their heart, and you just know you're doing the right thing."

What started as a volunteer project for Congdon is now an event that she hopes to expand and make permanent.

In 2010, looking to involve her association more in the community, she volunteered at the second RAM clinic in Los Angeles. Seeing the staggering need for basic health care and the patients' appreciation "changed my life," she said.

Congdon wanted to see the same help come to Northern California, so she worked with the nonprofit RAM Foundation to organize clinics in Oakland and Sacramento last year. The Tzu Chi Foundation, a Buddhist charity, also sponsored the clinics.

The two events combined served 6,500 people.

That scale of need persuaded Congdon to create an official California affiliate of RAM, which she did in September.

The new organization staged a second clinic in Oakland last week and is orchestrating the one in Sacramento.

At the Oakland clinic, Congdon met a patient who needed extensive dental work. The woman works for an orthodontist but has no dental insurance.

"She probably gets paid $20 to $25 an hour, but after rent and car payments she can't afford insurance," Congdon said. "We're seeing the working-class poor."

Volunteer clinicians at RAM provide physical exams, diagnostic tests, Pap smears and vaccinations; dental cleanings, fillings and extractions; and eye exams. At full capacity, they can prescribe and make 300 pairs of eyeglasses a day.

The RAM Foundation trucks in dental chairs, eye-exam machines and other major equipment from Tennessee. But the new RAM California still has to rent the location, feed 600 to 700 volunteers a day, and pay for everything from dental instruments to portable toilets.

The total cost of the Oakland and Sacramento clinics this year will be about $200,000, including what the Tennessee team spends, Congdon estimated. She said she raises the money by asking local hospitals, banks, other businesses and individuals for donations.

RAM California aims to eventually obtain its own equipment so that it can offer two-day weekend clinics more often in more locations, without depending on the trucks from Tennessee.

This is a human, more than a medical, mission for 49-year-old Congdon, who has led the surgeons' association for nearly 20 years but is not a medical professional.

"Hopefully, in a couple of years we'll be able to provide these clinics on our own and in more rural areas," she said. "Any town or city in California, we want to be able to help."

MEDICAL CAREREMOTE AREA MEDICAL CALIFORNIA FREE CLINIC

When: Friday through Monday

Where: Cal Expo Buildings C and D, 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento

Details:

For medical professionals – The clinic needs more volunteer ophthalmologists and optometrists all four days. On Monday, it needs dentists, oral surgeons and dental hygienists. To volunteer, register online at www.ram-ca.org, or appear at the clinic with your professional license.

For patients – Care is first come, first served. Numbers will be given to people in line starting at 3:30 a.m. each day of the clinic. Organizers expect each day's slots to be filled by 6 a.m. Patients should bring their own food, water and warm clothing.

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