Patricia Aguilar still remembers the day when a preschooler walked into the UCLA Mobile Eye Clinic where she works as an ophthalmic technician. He was shy and silent, walking with his head down. After she assessed him and gave him a new pair of glasses, “suddenly, he started speaking, even when others said they’d never heard him speak,” Aguilar marvels. “He even changed his posture.” This is the kind of profound impact UCLA’s volunteer-run healthcare programs can have.
UCLA nursing and medical students provide healthcare to the homeless. They participate in the country’s largest free clinic. And our dental students give exams in underserved communities. Public health students connect people in need with available resources, such as free prescription medications, transportation to shelters and medical appointments. At UCLA, we exist to serve, to heal, and to treat all regardless of circumstance with the dignity and respect that everyone deserves. And our healthcare initiatives and organizations do more than take care of the Los Angeles community. They also give Bruins the opportunity to apply classroom learning to real-world challenges.
Eyecare on Wheels
For more than 40 years, the UCLA Mobile Eye Clinic has ridden the streets of the city, carrying UCLA ophthalmologists, ophthalmology residents, technicians and volunteers dedicated to providing essential eye care to thousands of Angelenos. We recently completed vision screenings for 100,000 preschool-aged children and are on track to screen thousands more children this year.
“Poor vision permeates so many aspects of patient’s life,” clinic supervisor Kara Mondino says. “You get increased risk of falls and fractures, people experiencing homelessness can’t read job applications and those with mental health issues can’t read the bottle to take the appropriate amount of medication.”
In order to look out for the health of the homeless in our community, UCLA also launched the Mobile Clinic Project at UCLA. Bruin volunteer Keith Miller explains that “by sitting on a curb next to them, taking off our white coats and scrubs, and giving them an open heart and open ears, we provide them with quality care by treating them as our equals.”
The project started in 1999, when a volunteer organization that serves food to the homeless population in West Hollywood realized their clients were in desperate need of healthcare and reached out to professor Michael Prelip at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Almost immediately, a large group of medical, public health and undergraduate students at UCLA brought the Mobile Clinic to life. Each week, physicians, med students, public health students and undergrad volunteers from UCLA provide medical and social services to the individuals most at-risk in our community.
“They’re courteous, they always smile, they’re good people,” says one client. “Frankly, we would be in a pretty bad place without them.”
Once a year, hundreds of UCLA nursing, medical and dental staff and students volunteer at Care Harbor Clinic, the largest free clinic in the country and an organization we’ve been an integral part of for more than a decade. This year, UCLA and our partners provided medical services to more than 1,700 patients in three days, caring for uninsured, underinsured and at-risk people from across Southern California.
Patients are checked for high blood pressure, heart and lung problems, cancer and diabetes. They also receive vaccines, which is especially important since there is an epidemic of Hepatitis A among the homeless. Once participants are treated, they also receive information on follow-up care and prevention resources. And though Care Harbor is a temporary clinic, it does more than provide temporary care. It connects patients with conditions that require further treatment to local clinics and practices that provide ongoing care.
Closing the Gap
“Instead of bringing the patients to the dental school, we will be bringing the dental school to the community.” That’s the thinking of Dr. Bill Piskorowski, associate dean of a new UCLA dental school program that helps individuals in underserved areas. A group of fourth-year predoctoral students increase access to care for vulnerable populations in seven communities throughout Southern California, including San Fernando, Venice, Burbank, Northridge, South Central LA, Palm Desert and El Centro. Fourth-year dental students are also delivering care to school-aged children within LAUSD schools. Overseen by credentialed dental practitioners, they deliver primary care dental services including prevention, direct and indirect restorations, exodontia and pain management.”
The program is helping the many Californians who face inadequate access to dental care for a variety of reasons, such as underfunded public health programs and a lack of understanding of the huge importance of oral health. Because oral health is linked to chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease and other major health problems, these services are crucial. This UCLA program is transforming dentistry, taking a more proactive and holistic approach that considers patients’ social and environmental variables.
Without health, we have nothing. As a public university, it’s up to us at UCLA to positively impact people’s health and their lives. And every day, in every way, our dedicated Bruins are up to the job.