LOS ANGELES – They began arriving before dawn on a cold, misty morning, people of all ages lining up by the hundreds, some in wheelchairs, others hobbling on crutches, many of them missing teeth, all of them seeking the same thing: free medical care.
It was a scene that could have been playing out in a Third World country or perhaps some place like post-hurricane New Orleans, except that it wasn't. It was unfolding in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday, and the hundreds who showed up weren't refugees of a disaster or a civil war, just mainly working people without health insurance.
One of them, Kenny Gillett hadn't seen a doctor in two years, not since the 47-year-old welder lost his job and insurance when his employer went broke.
Adriana Valenzuela, a self-employed and uninsured cosmetologist, brought an 8-year-old son with a mouthful of cavities. Frank Carodine, a friendly white-haired man of 57, who rolled up in his wheelchair, said he had lost parts of both legs to diabetes, which was now ravaging his right eye. He needed glasses.
"I've got coverage for my diabetes, I go to a clinic, but it doesn't cover eye exams," he said.
Outside in the cold, several hundred more people, some balancing toddlers on their hips, waited patiently for their turn to enter the Los Angeles Sports Arena, an aging building that once played host to basketball's NBA champion Lakers and that rocker Bruce Springsteen affectionately dubbed "the dump that jumps" during a concert last year.
On Tuesday it was jumping with the energy of hundreds of smiling volunteer doctors, dentists, acupuncturists, chiropractors and other professionals, all of them brought together by the Tennessee-based nonprofit group Remote Area Medical. This being opening day for the seven-day clinic, California first lady Maria Shriver and other officials also paid a visit, Shriver saying she was humbled by the scope of the volunteer effort.
RAM, which was founded in 1985 to bring medical care to remote regions of the world, is focusing more these days on urban centers like Los Angeles. It put on a similar clinic in nearby Inglewood last year and has others scheduled for Oklahoma City and Chicago this summer.
"What you're seeing is a lot of Middle America here," said RAM's flamboyant founder, Stan Brock, the adventurer and former co-host of television's "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."
"Health care in this country is a privilege of the well-to-do and the well insured," said Brock, gesturing toward a crowd of more than 100 average people waiting to have decaying and sometimes infected teeth pulled or filled.
Some would need follow-up care, so before letting them out of the building RAM volunteers were writing referrals to free clinics around the area.
As of 6 p.m. Tuesday, 1,157 patients had registered for the first day of the clinic — 64 were children 18 and younger, organizers said.
More than 6,000 people were treated at last year's clinic. Brock said he hoped to beat that number this year, although he added nervously that would hinge on getting enough medical volunteers into the arena. About 20 of 94 dental chairs sat empty Tuesday because there weren't enough volunteer dentists to go around.
As he spoke the whirring sound of dozens of dental drills all going at once reverberated through the air. Off in a corner, where the stage for a rock concert might normally be placed, tables were lined with hundreds of sterilized dental tools.
In another corner of the arena floor, on more tables, sat hundreds of pairs of donated eyeglass frames.
"We cleaned out a warehouse that had last year's models," said Lou Kratzer, in charge of handing out prescription eyeglasses for RAM.
As Gillett waited for his, Christian Gaiters settled into a dentist's chair to have one of two broken teeth pulled. There wasn't time to do both.
"Then we'll go with this one, this one's giving me the most pain," he told Dr. Lallana Mekmanee.
In minutes she had it out and sent the 48-year-old library clerk on his way.
"I didn't even feel that, that was great. Thank you for your time," he said as he shook her hand.
Moments like that, Mekmanee said, are what make seeing "one patient after another patient after another patient" worthwhile.
Then she turned to work on 8-year-old Alejandro Pitsakis.