From West to East – A Fleet on Wheels to Serve

Tzu Chi Medical Foundation  |  November 13, 2019

Written by Lillian Yong
Photos by Audrey Cheng & Clarence Yau
Translated and edited by Monique Kuo

Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, established in 1993 as a charitable nonprofit 501(c)(3) free clinic, is a community-based volunteer-driven organization committed to providing patient-centered medical care to communities in need locally and internationally. Tzu Chi Medical Foundation serves patients with compassion and provides holistic and integrated health care services through dental, medical, vision, acupuncture and community wellness programs to underprivileged individuals regardless of religion, age, gender, ethnicity or financial circumstances, at minimal to no cost.

During an international medical outreach in Mexico in 1999, the medical team found it challenging to provide dental treatments to patients due to a shortage of power and sterilized equipment. On top of that, there were no trained volunteers qualified to be dental assistants. The dentists at outreaches had to do everything themselves, which added more difficulties in seeing patients. Therefore, the idea of setting up mobile dental clinics and providing training for dental assistants was inspired.

In July that same year, Tzu Chi Medical Foundation started building the first Tzu Chi Dental Mobile Clinic with state of the art equipment and  designed especially for people with disabilities. Serving as an extension of domestic outreaches, the first Tzu Chi Dental Mobile Clinic started its service on July 2, 2000, in Panorama City, California. Over 1,000 local residents not only benefited from dental services but also Western and Chinese medical care.

In 2001, the first dental assistant training course was conducted. Since then, whenever Mobile Clinics provide services, dental assistants are there to help. On September 4, 2005, after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, volunteers immediately responded to the needs of survivors and drove over 1,250 miles in 48 hours from Los Angeles, California to Beaumont, Texas to provide immediate medical and dental services.

While the second Dental Mobile Clinic was operative starting in 2005, a third was built in 2008 in Oregon featuring three medical chairs, digital X-ray machines, and internet access. The length of the van is 38 feet, longer than the first Northern California clinic by 4 feet. The third clinic supports large-scale medical outreaches in the Central Valley of California with the provision of dental services, such as dental examination, treatment, and oral education to disadvantaged and low-income families 

At his speech at the launching ceremony of the third Dental Mobile Clinic, Peter McHugh, Board of Supervisors of Santa Clara County, said that “I feel so proud that Tzu Chi Medical Foundation chose Milpitas to serve. Tzu Chi’s work in charity, medicine, education, and humanistic culture is really admirable, plus the work in recycling and environment protection; for example, I understand the ribbon used today is reusable. The government needs many organizations like Tzu Chi to provide services and care to under-served communities and families.” Peter McHugh also presented a County Award to Tzu Chi Medical Foundation for the great work that Tzu Chi Mobile Clinics have been doing.

The fourth Mobile Clinic became functional in 2008, followed by the fifth Mobile Clinic funded by Los Angeles Countythat facilitated the first large-scale medical outreach for vision care services on June 21, 2013, in San Bernardino County. The Vision Mobile Clinic, together with medical and dental care, served over 2,000 Inland Empire residents within three days.

The Vision Mobile Clinic is well equipped with exam rooms, optometric equipment, and phoropters to check prescriptions and screen for eye diseases. With on-site optical grinding machines, patients can receive new glasses at no charge thanks to donations by Tzu Chi generous supporters, Mr. and Mrs. Chiang Zon Ho. Volunteers were also trained periodically so they could assist optometrists at outreaches in Pacific Clinics and Downtown Women’s Center.

Donated by ZERO—The End of Prostate Cancer on September 22, 2014, the sixth Mobile Clinic, also known as ZERO Cancer Mobile Clinic, was designated to provide free Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) tests for men at high risk of prostate cancer, and improve the chances of survival through early detection. 

Thanks to generous sponsors and dedicated partners, Tzu Chi Medical Foundation was able to expand with a seventh Mobile Clinic to serve as a Fresno Vision Mobile Clinic, in addition to another two Vision Mobile Clinics to serve uninsured and underinsured communities in New York—a fleet of nine Mobile Clinics. On March 31, 2019, the two Vision Mobile Clinics began a cross-country journey from San Dimas, California to their home destination of New York City. Five volunteers took turns driving for 8 days, crossing 4,500 miles and 3 time zones to reach New York to continue to carry out the mission of Tzu Chi Medical Foundation of serving those in need.

Looking ahead, filling the gap of the unmet needs of uninsured and under-insured communities, a new Dental Mobile Clinic will join forces with the Fresno medical team in the Spring of 2020. A fleet of 10 Mobile Clinics will be on wheels to serve in the USA next year!