Chinese Medicine began as a medicine by the people and for the people. In our lore, there is the image of the barefoot doctor traveling to local villages to give care to those in need. People would come from all around when word got out. The doctor would tirelessly treat any and all who came. For many, this was their only access to the health care they needed.
Last year, I saw a piece on 60 Minutes about Remote Area Medical (RAM), a non-profit organization founded by Stan Brock, well-known as the co-host of the popular 1970's TV show Wild Kingdom. RAM has been delivering health care services to remote areas around the world for the last 25 years. The piece was done in large part as a reflection of the current health care system in this country. No longer were only "other" places considered "remote areas." Now, right here at home, right here next door is where the need can be just as great. So when I heard that RAM was coming to LA for their first foray into a large urban environment, I had to go barefoot and volunteer.
For 8 days, from August 11th to the 18th, RAM took over the Forum in Inglewood. Last Thursday in the pre-dawn light, as I pulled into the parking lot for the first of my two 6am to noon shifts, there was a long line of people waiting to get in. Many had camped out in front the night before. And many would come back later in the week for more care. I had flash backs to when, as a child, I had come here to see the Lakers play, to see U2 perform, and I even saw rodeos. This is a building that at one time represented the flash of LA, the glitz and glam of Hollywood, it was new and fresh, exciting and jubilant; it was the "Fabulous Forum." Now, it felt like a creaky old dinosaur, antiquated, functional but not well-suited to meet a new demand in a new time. It felt like our health care system.
With all the talk today in the media about health care reform, there are those that say we have the best health care system in the world. If this is true, then the definition I am choosing to use is the one I saw on display all last week: dedicated medical professionals, sincerely and earnestly caring for those in great need. By the people, for the people. Physicians, dentists, ophthalmologists, OB/GYN's, hundreds of support volunteers, and now acupuncturists teamed up to offer free care to all those who came--most being uninsured or under-insured. According to volunteer coordinator Jean Jolly, in total 14,561 services worth $2.8 million were given by 3,827 volunteers to 6,344 patients (1). That's almost 800 people a day!! And more could have been treated had there been enough medical volunteers. It is hardly surprising that the demand was far greater than the supply.
From the start of my shift, I had a steady flow of patients. Many came for pain-related conditions. And many had a long list of lifestyle-related health issues common in an underserved population: high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and high cholesterol. But one thing was uniformly present in all the patients I treated: a lack of options. Much of what these hard-working people suffer from is preventable through better food choices and nutrition and lifestyle education. But they are surrounded by fast food as the least expensive way to feed their families; they have income that is too low to afford their own private primary care physician so they instead use the local ER for such needs, where doctors are so overwhelmed by the volume that they have no time to educate their patients about prevention of disease. Something must change. Though I am not sure what that "something" is, I do know a few things:
- Education is the silver bullet. With education, come options. With options, comes choice. And an empowered and knowledgeable patient is their own best judge of how to care for themselves and their family.
- As the saying goes, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." So much of what we, as a population, from the wealthy to the poor, walk around suffering from is preventable with a good diet and exercise. With even the smallest changes, over time, our medical needs will decrease along with our costs. And we will begin to transform our disease care system into an actual health care system.
- We, as a nation, are only as healthy as our sickest neighbor. To see homeless people sleeping on the street amidst all the wealth in this city is saddening. That RAM could have stayed open for another 8 days and still not met the demand is shocking.
- Health and wealth are inextricably intertwined. Health is not merely the absence of disease; but rather it is the ability to adapt to new environments. The health of our country is today being challenged to adapt to the profound need to change how we care for our citizens. Yet, taking the first step does not require monetary wealth. Rather, it requires a wealth of spirit. Do I feel compassion for those who are in need? Do I see myself as their kin? Do I want to help?
In my time with RAM last week, I'd like to think I helped a few people in need. Perhaps I planted a few seeds of change in some of my patients' minds. And perhaps, if only for a moment, for as long as their pain subsided, I was able to introduce another possibility to them, that there is another choice, another option. That they are not alone in their struggle to live without pain. That for at least those 8 days, they had someone to lend a helping hand.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you live with ease.
And may you help those in need.
And for more information on RAM, or to make a donation, go to: Ramusa.org
1. LATimes.com, "California Briefing", Kimi Yoshino, August 20, 2009.