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A safe haven for the uninsured

RotaCare free clinic receives over 8,200 visits each year from local patients

For four days, Ana Arrieta tried everything to nurse her newborn baby back to health, but nothing seemed to cure Liliana's cold and ear infection.

Arrieta lost her health insurance recently when she was laid off. After paying bills and everyday expenses for her two children, her family did not have enough money left over for the $300 doctor visit for the baby.

Last week, after Liliana's crying and pain persisted, Arrieta turned to RotaCare, the free clinic located alongside El Camino Hospital. Funded by the El Camino Hospital Foundation -- with crucial help from local donors, such as those giving to the Mountain View Voice Holiday Fund -- the clinic receives 8,200 visits a year from underinsured or uninsured patients like Arrieta. Around 250 volunteer nurses, doctors, pharmacists and their interpreters provide medical services for the patients, including care for minor illness, chronic pain management and free medications.

"We don't have a job, we don't have health insurance. The most important thing is a doctor can check her out," Arrieta said as she waited in an examination room with Liliana.

That same day, dozens of other patients filled the RotaCare lobby, waiting to refill their medications or see doctors and nurses. Children played with building blocks and read books, while Red Cross volunteers occupied patients with a safety preparedness demonstration. The clinic is open three evenings a week from 5:30 to 9 p.m., and patients must call beforehand to make an appointment.

"The clinic is the safety net for anyone who isn't insured," said nurse and community services coordinator Cheryl Canning, one of the clinic's few paid employees. "Volunteers are helping out the neediest people in the community."

Originally established by the Rotary Club, which set up nine similar clinics in the Bay Area, RotaCare moved to El Camino Hospital in 1996 and served 250 patients in its first year. The clinic now has specialists on staff, and can provide orthopedic, dermatological and vision care services.

Dr. Ethan Daniels, a cardiologist who volunteers at RotaCare once a month, said most of his patients visit the clinic because they "just need reassurance." The volunteers work together to provide appropriate medications and treatments despite the clinic's limited resources, Dr. Daniels said.

Many RotaCare patients have medical conditions that require steady treatment, Canning said, such as diabetes, hypertension and mood disorders. But it is difficult to provide this type of treatment since patients rarely see the same doctor.

A new case management program at the clinic helps to solve this problem by pairing a nurse practitioner with 143 patients with chronic conditions. She teaches them how to make healthy lifestyle choices and helps the patients apply for medication. Canning said many of these patients cannot otherwise afford these medications. Money from the Holiday Fund will go toward helping run this case management program.

"These patients are living paycheck to paycheck," Canning said. "Sometimes they have to decide if they are going to use money to buy medication or feed their children."

When RotaCare staff sees a more serious case, they must rely on outside help, often from the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, to treat these patients.

The clinic used this community support earlier this year when Rabia, a 22-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, visited RotaCare with chronic pain. Rabia's leg had been hurt during a bomb blast in her home country. Unable to care for herself, she came to the U.S. to live with family. But without proper medical care, her condition had worsened.

"By the time she got to us, it was evident the injury was beyond anything we could do," Canning said.

Clinic staff arranged for the leg to be amputated and found a prosthetist to fit Rabia with an artificial leg during the surgery, so that "she would wake up in the operating room with two feet at the end of the bed," Canning said.

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