Written by Yi Fan Lam
Translated by Ariel Chan
Edited by Patrick McShane
On March 26, 2023, local Santa Ana, California resident named Juana Almazan arrived early at Tzu Chi USA’s Orange County free medical clinic to ensure she could receive care. She came to line up at three o’clock in the morning, still wrapped in a big quilt: “Every time I come to the dentist here, I always have a good impression and have the best services. I am so grateful to everyone, and I hope God blesses each and every one of you.”
Urgent Need for a Free Clinic
Juana is just one of many people who are in desperate need of medical assistance. It only takes 20 minutes to drive from the affluent neighborhood of Irvine to nearby Santa Ana, but the cityscapes are profoundly different. Santa Ana is an economically disadvantaged immigrant community where, for the majority of residents, English is a second language. Since 2013, volunteers from Tzu Chi in Orange County, Southern California, have held free clinics in Santa Ana three times a year, serving low-income and uninsured community residents.
While waiting for a doctor, volunteers distributed copies of Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si Aphorisms printed in four languages: Chinese, English, Japanese, and Spanish, as well as peace charms. Beyond helping patients find relief from their physical suffering, they help them find peace of mind.
Nearly 40 Spanish and English volunteer translators mobilized for the free clinic. Among them, Roberta Garcia and Monica Sanchez have transitioned from patients to volunteers, hoping to serve their communities through action, acting as a harmonious bridge between the Tzu Chi volunteers and the visitors.
From Patient to Volunteer
Monica Sanchez, a volunteer, came to help with her friends: “Everything is free today, and I like it very much. When I saw you helping the crowd, I decided to also volunteer my time! It’s good for my community and me. I saw Lisa Solomon, the principal of Madison Elementary, giving out food while I helped out with flyers and delivered food. It was really good.”
Volunteer Roberta Garcia was helped by Tzu Chi a few years ago because her family needed glasses. Seeing the volunteers doing so much for the community, she was moved and wanted to help. She said: “Charline, [a Tzu Chi volunteer], invited us to go to shopping malls and schools to distribute activity leaflets. During the pandemic, we also went to schools to distribute fruits and vegetables to families in need. Tzu Chi volunteers came to our community and provided a family with about 20 pounds of fruits and vegetables. The neighbors are very grateful. We want to spread the message that Tzu Chi distributes food, clothes, and medicines for free, especially during a time of inflation.”
From Students to Doctors and Nurses
Some children who were educated at the Tzu Chi Academy have now grown up to become professional medical staff who can put their professional skills to good use in service of others and contribute to free clinics.
Nurse Cynthia Chou once studied at the Tzu Chi Academy and served as the leader of a Tzu Chi youth group. This was the first time she participated in the free clinic as a nurse: “I helped Tzu Chi all the time when I was growing up. Today is the first time I participated in the free clinic as a nurse. It’s a great feeling to work with the nursing station team, conducting blood sugar and cholesterol tests, and providing free medical care to those who really need it. This is another form of service besides working in a hospital. This is the fifth or sixth time I have been to the free clinic, from my first volunteer job delivering documents to now being able to serve in a more direct way because of my professional background. I am very grateful to be able to serve disadvantaged communities with people who share the same belief.”
Kevin, a dentist, also grew up attending the Tzu Chi Academy. After graduating from dental school, he participated in Tzu Chi’s free clinic for the first time since last December at the invitation of his uncle. Today is the second time he has volunteered: “When I was a child in Chinese school, I only knew Tzu Chi as a Buddhist organization that taught me to read Chinese and learn sign language, but I didn’t know much more. After hearing about Tzu Chi’s work from my uncle for so many years, I finally came here and learned about community services, and it’s a great experience to participate in the free clinic.”
Fast Optician Service
Fully equipped with optometry equipment and a lens grinding room, the Tzu Chi Vision Mobile Clinic is like a mini optometry clinic. After an absence during the pandemic, volunteers again drove to the neighborhood to register patients for ophthalmological treatment. The ophthalmology volunteers first measured eyesight using a vision checklist and then went to the ophthalmology mobile vehicle to provide glasses frames for visitors. Next, the ophthalmologist conducted further examination to confirm prescriptions, and finally, the glasses were made in the lens grinding room. Visitors could get their glasses after waiting for about 30 to 40 minutes.
Dolores Salgado, a visitor, was very happy to receive a pair of glasses: “I have been [to the free clinic] twice, once last year and once today, and both times I have a good impression. I came to the ophthalmology department to get glasses and see an acupuncture doctor. Both glasses and acupuncture are good for my body.” On that day, the ophthalmology mobile vehicle distributed a total of 17 pairs of glasses to people in need.
All Departments Work Together to Treat Those in Need
During the pandemic, many people suffered from anxiety. Cognizant of the mental health needs of the community, volunteers gave a special invitation to psychiatrist Margaret Lin from Kaiser Permanente to work with patients at the clinic. She said: “Many people say that they have high blood pressure and pain and need treatment, but after listening carefully, I think they may need some other help. For example, patients with high blood pressure said that they have headaches. But after just asking them a few more questions, I found that this pain may be related to stress, lack of sleep, or other factors. I provide assistance in this regard and will consider further follow-ups, I will not just diagnose based on one short visit today. The short free clinic is not just to treat high blood pressure; it is also necessary to find out whether there are other factors that cause a patient’s blood pressure to fluctuate.”
She continued: “Especially since the pandemic, many patients developed anxiety or depression. It may be that the pandemic has made many people feel helpless or stressed about the future. They don’t know what the future will hold. I have seen a lot in the field of psychiatry in this regard, whether it is insomnia, panic attacks, or the symptoms of clinical depression. These are all relatively common, so I hope I have been helpful today.”
Beyond care for physical and psychological pain, clean second-hand clothes, shoes, and toys were provided on-site for the visitors and children to choose from for free in order to reduce living expenses.
The clinic was able to help many in the community who were in need, and the volunteers were glad to give their time and talent to help their neighbors.