This story was produced in partnership with Building Healthy Communities (BHC) in the Eastern Coachella Valley, an initiative of the California Endowment.
Very early in the morning, around 1:00 A.M., families started lining up outside of the tents that had been set up on the campus of Desert Mirage High School in Thermal, California. As dawn broke on this Saturday morning of September 12, and the sun rose overhead, the line grew to hundreds of people--men, women, and children--waiting to meet the doctors, dentists and other volunteer health care professionals who had arrived the night before to provide their services free of charge to residents of the Coachella Valley.
Since 2009, attendees look forward to this event--as do the volunteers who travel far and wide to assist them-- as they are able to receive the care they cannot access during the rest of the year.
31-year-old Rocky Sanchez was one of those attendees. He began waiting at 4:30 A.M. A security guard at a welfare office, Sanchez hoped to see the doctor about his diabetes as well as visit the dentist for a couple fillings and a cleaning.
"I don't get to go to the doctor as often as I want to," said Sanchez, who attended the event with his wife. "It's not often that people can offer these services to the uninsured."
The Flying Doctors is a non-profit organization comprised of volunteer doctors that primarily provide their healthcare services throughout Haiti, Mexico, Central and South America. Notably, the Coachella Valley is the only location they serve outside of Latin America and every year, the number of attendees seeking their services continues to grow.
"There are huge disparities in our community, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. We want to connect people with local resources to live healthier lives. The need of the community members mirror those of South America and third-world countries practically," says Lucy Moreno, president of the Southern California Flying Doctors chapter and the event organizer.
According to the City of Coachella, 1 out of 10 families live below the poverty level, with an annual per capita income that dips below $7,000 in some communities. And though income level would make many of these residents eligible for MediCal and other affordable insurance options, factors such as legal status, lack of transportation and general lack of information on available resources prevents many from accessing health care.
While Sanchez arrived to see the doctor and dentist, many more services were offered at the fair; these included mammograms, vision checks, hearing exams, physical therapy consultations, blood pressure checks and diabetes screenings. These services were provided, also free of charge by partner organizations such as the Riverside County Department of Public Health, and IMAHelps. In addition, they were joined by a plethora of supporting organizations, including the American Diabetes Association and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation. A large number of volunteers arrived from locales as far as Reno, Nevada, and Brentwood, California.
Attendees ranged from young tots to more mature adults. Tania Sumano, a 34-year-old draftswoman from Bermuda Dunes, met with a physical therapist to discuss injuries she received in the past from a car accident. She learned various exercises that she could practice at home to strengthen certain muscles.
"I never went to physical therapy afterwards and it caused a lot of pain down the road and the healing took a lot longer. Unfortunately I don't have medical insurance so it made it a lot harder for me to find physical therapy," Sumano said.
Sumano explained that though she needed the health insurance after her accident, her $200 monthly deductible had seemed like a steep price, especially because she doesn't get sick often.
While some locals attended the event seeking services for a particular health issue, others like Amber Alonso, a 29-year-old from Indio, wanted to learn more about improving overall health and wellness. During the day Alonso learned about preventative healthcare measures such as healthy eating and found the educational exhibits helpful.
"It's a good thing for the Valley to come together for," says Alonso.
David Morgan, a doctor from the town of Lincoln, north of Sacramento, has been visiting the Coachella Valley since 1996 and over the years since he began volunteering, has seen recurring health issues among locals, particularly among agricultural workers that toil long hours under the harsh desert sun. "Eyes are very important and the optometry portion is very important. Muscular skeletal problems are very common because of the heavy hard work they do and being out in the bright sun affects their eyes," says Morgan
Fortunately, the collaborative efforts among the various volunteer organizations can help residents with these issues, notes Morgan. "The optometry, the medical, the chiropractic and physical therapy, really work together to help them in any way we can."
One of the highest needs among the patients is dental care and dentists often see problems such as periodontal disease and tooth decay. "In this area, it's a combo of the cost and the access," observes Adrian Fenderson, a retired dentist who resides in Napa Valley and managed the triage section of the dental clinic that day.
As noted in a recent article in The Atlantic, access to dental care is particularly challenging because it is most often not included with other health care benefits. In addition, MediCal does not provide dental care coverage for adults, placing the complete burden of out-of-pocket expenses on families already living well below the Federal Poverty Level. For this reason, many Coachella Valley resident rely on annual events such as this to access much-needed treatment.
The dental section consisted of 20 chairs for patients, with dentists, volunteers, and students scurrying about the chairs to complete various procedures. A table was set up with a portable x-ray machine, which took photos and printed out images for the dental staff to use. Under the supervision of one of their instructors, dental students from Loma Linda University School of Dentistry also assisted. The procedures took about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the severity of the case. Procedures ranged from restorative work like fillings to more extensive procedures like extractions.
Even with the Affordable Care Act in place, the fair and other community health events provides a needed respite for some.
"We do [this event] because there's a medical system that's not working and a tremendous need not only by those that are undocumented in our Valley but those that are under-served. There are so many services that their insurance doesn't cover, especially in oral health," said Southern California Flying Doctors' Lucy Moreno. "This event gives us a bird's eye view of what our public health looks like and it looks like desperate need."
She stressed the importance of providing additional resources for patients after their initial meeting.
"The important thing is the follow-up and that they find a medical and dental home," Moreno said. "They are referred to local doctors and dentists so that they can find a place to go and they don't have to wait in line anymore."
And while finding affordable, accessible dental and medical care during the rest of the year is likely to remain a challenge for many locals, at least for now, they know they can look forward to the Flying Doctors' next visit and the hard work of dozens of volunteers that understand their need.