Health & Medicine

Cal Expo will become a gigantic, free medical clinic for 3 days

Dentists, physicians and eye doctors will offer tooth extractions, eyeglasses on demand and more for free at the California CareForce health clinic scheduled Friday through Sunday at Cal Expo.

U.S. Census figures, released Tuesday, showed that the share of Californians without health insurance dropped to 7.3 percent in 2016, compared with 8.6 percent a year earlier.

But millions of California residents still cannot afford health insurance or don’t have the money for the copayments, deductibles and other fees required by their policies.

CareForce Executive Director Pamela Congdon said she finds no shortage of people seeking medical help.

“The care is given with no questions asked,” she said. “It is not dependent on residency, immigration status, income or insurance. We don’t check anybody’s IDs.”

To get service, patients must register the day before they wish to be seen. Registration begins at 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at Cal Expo. Enter the facility at the gate at Exposition Boulevard and Challenge Way. Signs and volunteers will direct registrants to the sign-up location. Each registrant will receive a wristband that has a time when they can return to see a medical professional.

This isn’t the first time Congdon has arranged a multiday clinic at CalExpo. The executive director of the California Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, she also led efforts in 2011, 2012 and 2016. For the first two years, she enlisted the help of the nonprofit Remote Area Medical, an organization based in Tennessee that operates clinics in mostly rural locations.

After learning the ropes from Remote Area Medical, Congdon said, she moved to form a nonprofit that focused on serving disadvantaged or underserved people in urban settings. Congdon said the surgeons in her association encouraged and supported her in the work, allowing her to lead the staff of both organizations and volunteering at the clinics.

“When they let me work on this new charity to help the community, it just gave me new purpose at my job and in my life,” Congdon said.

Volunteers, she said, get just as much – and perhaps even more – from participating in the clinics as patients. Congdon recalled one year when a tall, burly man approached her, looking for the person in charge.

She didn’t hesitate. She was, she told him. He told her that his wife had been in pain for a couple of years because of an abscessed tooth. The couple had debated coming to the clinic, concerned about the quality of care they’d receive, Congdon said. His wife was getting her tooth removed as they spoke.

The man said his wife wanted to thank Congdon after the tooth was extracted, and she eventually hugged Congdon and sobbed, saying her pain was alleviated.

“There are so many patients who come up and thank you for not forgetting them or thank you for giving them their integrity back,” she said. “They just feel like they’ve been forgotten by the system.”

Tom Burley, program manager for California CareForce, said there are hundreds of cases like this one during each multiday clinic. At the 2016 Cal Expo clinic, he said, roughly 1,400 patients received care that would cost $700,000 in the marketplace.

In 2011 and 2012, Congdon said, the clinics stretched over four days, and twice as many people were seen than in 2016. About 650 volunteers will work at this weekend’s event, she and Burley estimated. For every medical professional volunteering at the clinic, there will be two general volunteers helping to run the operation.

“We have a really experienced core team of volunteers who are really dedicated,” Burley said. “They follow us all around the state. They come to each of our clinics, and these are the leaders of each section. They run the orientations for our volunteers on each clinic morning, and they also act as fountains of knowledge during the day, and they also take care of all the clinical issues that happen.”

Potential volunteers, registrants and potential donors can find more information at Congdon said donors paid for the sophisticated medical equipment needed to provide services. For every dollar spent on a clinic, Burley said, about $5 in free care is given.

In total, the organization’s database of volunteers numbers about 10,000. It has run other clinics in communities such as Roseville, greater Los Angeles and Oakland. Volunteers keep coming back, Burley said, because they enjoy the immediate effect they can have on patients’ lives.

It takes two days to set up a clinic and one day to break it down, Burley said, but it takes four months to plot logistics such as recruiting volunteers and forging partnerships with paramedics and other necessary services. All this work culminates in three days of putting people on the path to better health, Burley said.

“I remember one case last year where a 9-year-old child had a pair of glasses being made and just seeing the look of shock on her face as she saw clearly maybe for the first time in years as she got this pair of pink glasses put on her face,” Burley said. “That’s something that sticks with me.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee