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Hundreds of Western University of Health Sciences students and faculty volunteered at Care Harbor LA, one of the largest free health clinics in the country. 

Care Harbor LA, which ran Oct. 13-15, 2018 at The Reef in downtown Los Angeles, provided free medical, dental, vision and preventative care to thousands of the Los Angeles community’s most vulnerable individuals and families. To date, Los Angeles Care Harbor clinics have provided care conservatively valued at more than $18.7 million, based on mean regional costs of care – a figure that does not include off-site lab services, follow-up care, or the many prevention resources offered at the event. 

The WesternU College of Optometry co-led Care Harbor’s vision section. College of Optometry Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs Raymond Maeda, OD, FAAO, said about 320 patients visited the vision section on Saturday and 300 patients went through on Sunday. 

Students further develop their technical skills by volunteering at this event, and see the impact they can make in the community, Maeda said. Patients were able to leave with prescription glasses made in an hour, so students could see the immediate improvement they made to patients’ lives. 

“We are providing care for close to 1,000 people in three days. That’s impactful,” Maeda said. “I hope they take a step back and realize that.” 

Los Angeles resident Tiffany Duvernay-Smith, who attended Care Harbor LA on Oct. 15, said she wanted a thorough eye exam. She is diabetic and has high blood pressure, and Care Harbor serves as a convenient one-stop shop for her health care needs. 

“I know they are going to look at the back of my eye here. They do a very thorough job. I wanted to have that experience again,” she said. “I love the joyful volunteers. They seem ready, willing and able to help, like they’re glad to be here.” 

Fourth-year College of Optometry student Sabrina Cordell, who volunteered Oct. 15, said the vision section ran smoothly, with good communication and teamwork, resulting in an efficient transfer of patients from one station to another. 

“It’s good to support your local community and provide care to people who don’t have access to it all the time,” she said. “The patients are happy to be here and we are too.” 

Los Angeles resident Maria Brown said she has worked at Care Harbor LA as a security guard, but this is the first time she attended as a patient. She had cataracts removed from her eyes about eight years ago and she is diabetic, so she wanted to get her vision and overall health checked. She stopped to get an exam from WesternU College of Podiatric Medicine students. 

“They were nice to me,” she said. “They examined my foot good.” 

“It’s good to help out. There is a huge population that needs our help,” said third-year College of Podiatric Medicine student Michele Chan. “It’s great to offer our assistance even as students. We get to learn a lot from these events, honestly.” 

Patients who do not have a primary care doctor are assigned a medical home before they leave Care Harbor. The clinic emphasizes continuity of care and is not a one-shot deal, said WesternU College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific (COMP) Assistant Professor Anna Yeung, DO ’03, a longtime Care Harbor volunteer. The mission of Care Harbor, “To promote the health and well-being of underserved populations by creating new pathways to accessible, sustainable care,” fits well with WesternU’s humanistic philosophy, she said. 

“Our mission is to serve the underserved, and to make sure they are treated in a respectful, compassionate manner, as well as giving students the opportunity to also provide that type of care,” Yeung said. “We are definitely reaching a hidden population here. We are also able to provide real-time, integrated care.” 

But Care Harbor LA’s impact could have been much greater. Many people picked up wristbands but did not actually show up to receive care. COMP Assistant Dean of Clinical Education Natalie Nevins, DO, MSHPE, who serves as Care Harbor LA’s medical director, said many patients are afraid of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

“They know the clinic is safe, but they have no way to know what might happen outside the clinic when they leave,” Nevins said. “We know many didn’t show because of fear. That is unconscionable. People are afraid to get the health care they need because they could potentially get deported or, if they are a legal immigrant, they might still get detained. 

“We are trying to take care of our community regardless of status,” Nevins added. “The health of the community depends on the health of all our inhabitants, not just the ones with the privilege of health insurance. Health care is a right, not a privilege. Everyone needs to have access to care.”