The first sound you hear is the high-pitched wheeze of 60 dentists’ drills buzzing inside of open mouths. Splayed out on a show floor generally reserved for millionaire athletes and rock bands are: a hundred dental chairs; five RVs filled with X-ray equipment; mammogram machines; a 60-person triage station; rubber gloved paramedics; long picnic tables of surgical equipment; and about 1,000 recipients of free healthcare. Since last Tuesday and until tomorrow, the Forum in Inglewood is the biggest free healthcare clinic in Los Angeles. The bill will be picked up by the Remote Area Medical Expedition, a 1,300-person volunteer effort of medical professionals. RAM got their start treating villagers in the Amazon in 1985. Now they have ventured to the first world-their first time treating patients in Los Angeles.
At 2 a.m. on Friday, people started to line up for treatment. Most patients are local. Some drove in from San Francisco and a few folks came from Nevada. It’s not a destitute crowd. Many are working families, though some attendees hail from shelters. Hundreds slept on the sidewalk outside of the Forum to be granted access around 6 a.m.
The patients are mostly black, Latino, and Korean residents of L.A.’s working class suburbs like Compton, Hawthorne and Boyle Heights. They are service workers, seniors, immigrants and children who have not seen a doctor since the day they were born.
* * *
The majority of people came to get their teeth fixed. During the first two days of service, RAM dentists have put in 947 fillings.
Dawna and I sat in the bleachers of the Forum. She is small woman with a nut-colored tan and sun-bleached hair. Dawna was about to be the 425th dental patient seen today. Dawna “was conceived on Venice beach” and currently lives in her van by the Venice boardwalk. She has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety. She takes her meals at a shelter. She can no longer chew food because of impacted incisors. Ten years ago, however, Dawna worked as a home health in aide in Texas and Alaska.
“When I eat,” Dawna said, her hands clutching her jaw, “my gums bleed. I’m in pain all the time.” She tells me that she hopes that the dentist will just pull her front row of teeth out.
They will. Crowns, caps, and fillings are expensive procedures that require follow-up, which patients can’t afford. Most the dentists working on the floor are going to yank a bad tooth rather than try to restore it. By Saturday morning, RAM dentists had removed 471 teeth.
* * *
According to the registration volunteers, most RAM patients seeking medical attention suffered from chronic conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes. These are all conditions that spur other medical aliments. If patients who suffer from chronic conditions were able to receive care early and often, treatment would be less costly as conditions would be less severe.