Written by Shuli Lo, Roger Kao
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Maggie Morgan
Safety protocols put in place to slow the pandemic halted many of Tzu Chi’s essential services. Food distributions had to be reworked, in-person fundraisers moved online, and Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s free clinics had to cease entirely. The Organization’s National Headquarters have been providing services to residents of Bakersfield, California for years; without the free care, many individuals who used the resource as their primary healthcare went without medical attention. But on May 15, 2022, patients were finally able to access the services again as volunteers hosted a free clinic at Golden Valley High School.
The relentlessness of COVID-19 forced Tzu Chi to suspend the in-person free clinics two years ago. As they did with other initiatives, the Organization found a work-around for the service, and continued to conduct free clinics virtually. Many patients with chronic illnesses need to take daily medication to maintain their health, so volunteers were diligent in mailing the pharmaceuticals to the patients’ homes and following up on their health over the phone.
A Countryside Clinic: Tzu Chi Team Travels to Bakersfield, CA
Bakersfield, a city located in Central California, has a large concentration of farmworkers and migrant farmworkers, many with low incomes and no health insurance. For the past 25 years, Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters’ medical team has been visiting the area regularly, focusing on farmworker families in need.
At 5 a.m. on May 15, when the light of dawn was faint, overjoyed volunteers arrived at the Tzu Chi South El Monte Medical Center ready to resume their free clinic duties. Bakersfield is about a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, and many team members started their day as early as 3 a.m., heading out to spread light while it was still dark outside.
As they traveled to the countryside once again, volunteers were reminded of their important mission: to address the concerns of the residents who depended on them. The two-hour bus ride finally reached its destination, rolling up to Golden Valley High School around 8 a.m. A group of volunteers had arrived earlier to start registering residents and helped them fill out forms. All attendees had their temperature taken, and were screened for COVID with a rapid test.
Volunteers began to set up their workstations immediately, organizing the site and preparing for a busy day of assisting residents. Within a short period of time, three departments were ready to go; the free clinic offered dentistry, western medicine and Chinese medicine services to cover a wide array of healthcare needs. As people arrived, they were greeted with a beautiful tent, one that (with a quick turn) could transform into a consultation room. The seamless transition reduced setup times as well as streamlined the process for checking patients in, ensuring the day would be as successful as possible.
Just Like Old Friends: Returning Patients Reunite with Volunteers
Dr. Stephen Denq, CEO of Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, has been marching at the forefront and working until the very end of each event. As Dr. Denq participated in the free clinic, he said, “We saw some familiar faces in the patients, who were very happy to see us. Some came to see us immediately when they saw our message on Facebook. It is still the time of the pandemic, after all, we are particularly careful. There are a few people who were to see the dentist, but their temperature is 99 degrees, although the rapid test result is negative, in order to confirm, they were first sent to Western medicine for consultation, we must ensure the safety of everyone.”
For the last pandemic-riddled two years, the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation has been continuously conducting free clinics virtually and over the phone. Dr. Denq said, “We would regularly consult by phone for three months, targeting existing patients and providing needed medications to those who were under continuous care. We would pack these medications together with some supplies, like masks and hand sanitizer, and mail them to our patients. It was until today that we had the opportunity to meet them again in person.”
Dr. Shirley Chen, Director of the Medical Development Office of Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters, said, “This is the first time we returned to this free clinic site in two years after the pandemic broke out. Many patients are very much looking forward to it, and our volunteers and doctors are very enthusiastic to participate. Many of the patients were in urgent dental conditions, and many families brought their children to see the doctor. Therefore, this time the dental clinic focused more on health and hygiene. It was also the first time we tried to reorganize the dental accessories, hoping to do the most with the least amount of manpower. There is a responsible person and a window at each clinic station, streamlining the whole process.”
Great Minds Think Alike: TIMA Partners with CSF
Staff from CSF Medical Non-Profit Foundation visited the free clinic site on May 15. Although they were not present to see the patients, they provided follow-up specialist medical care, supporting Tzu Chi’s shortage. With CSF’s help, Tzu Chi will be able to refer patients for specialized medical treatment, giving patients the highest quality of care possible.
Volunteer Minyuan Lv said, “Dr. Boren Deng brought a gift from Master Cheng Yen to the volunteers who attended the clinic for the first time. We are especially grateful to Dr. Phu Truong and his family, for each free clinic the whole family is mobilized and present.”
Together At Last: Residents Rejoice for In-Person Clinic
Jorge Alvarez needs long-term medication for his chronic illnesses, but has no health insurance. Before the pandemic, Jorge had received Tzu Chi’s free clinic services for five years. “During the pandemic, when I was running out of medication, I received a call from a Tzu Chi volunteer, and I was relieved from the worry that I might run out of medication. From then on, after the doctor called and confirmed if the data was correct, I received the necessary medication regularly,” Jorge recounted.
Lorena Sánchez, who lives in a boarding house, has been troubled with toothaches for two years. The clinic was her first opportunity to see a doctor after waiting years for relief. Lorena received dental treatment and also got her medication. “I was lucky to find out about the free clinic program and to get the opportunity to come for treatment. In fact, all the services were something I didn’t expect. The doctor was very attentive, and I am very grateful, thank you very much for everything you provided, Tzu Chi has helped me a lot,” Lorena said graciously.
Paulina Ramirez is both a local volunteer and a former patient of the free clinic. During the pandemic, she was often asked by folks when Tzu Chi’s medical services would resume. Paulina said with a smile, “I missed you all so much, and everyone is so grateful that you are back.”
With the pandemic slowly dissipating, everyone is hopeful that things will return to normal—and will stay that way. The free clinic’s huge turnout confirmed that this neighborhood is in great need of medical services. Based on the number of patients who came for care, it has been determined that a free clinic should be held at least every three months. The Tzu Chi Medical Foundation and volunteers will persevere and continue to come up with solutions; our teams are dedicated to more than just easing physical ailments, they’re determined to offer love to those who feel left behind.