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Church welcomes free health clinic

The clinic serves unemployed, uninsured residents in the Los Angeles area.
UMNS photos by Barry Simmons.

 By Barry Simmons*

June 17, 2009 | GLENDALE, Calif. (UMNS)

Volunteers at First United Methodist Church were feverishly preparing to accommodate a multitude, but not for Sunday services. This was Tuesday evening, which meant people from all over Los Angeles would soon begin taking seats in an old Sunday school classroom to receive healing.

Sylvia Lofttus (left) checks in Yvonne Crafter at the free clinic held every
Tuesday night at First United Methodist Church in Glendale, Calif.

For the next five hours, this room would be transformed into a free health clinic.

“This clinic is the only 100 percent free clinic in Los Angeles County, as far as I know,” said Dr. Arbi Ghazarian, who started the clinic six years ago. “Not a single staff member gets paid.”

Cabinets that used to hold art supplies now serve as the pharmacy; old classrooms in the education building have been turned into exam rooms.

Sylvia Lofftus, a former parish nurse here, arranged a makeshift curtain partition in one of the rooms.

“Each room has a massage table we use as an exam table,” she said.

A mission field

Every Tuesday, Lofftus arrives early to coordinate the dozen or so doctors, nurses, college students and church members who volunteer at the clinic.

Clinic founder Dr. Arbi Ghazarian
(right) goes over a patient’s chart
with a volunteer staff member.

“This is my mission field,” she said as she filled a prescription in what used to be the kitchen. “I’ve been to the Philippines on medical missions, but this is so much more rewarding because this is week after week, day after day, working with these patients.”

Most who come here are the working poor who have jobs but no insurance. Others, like Yvonne Crafter, have lost their jobs and are unable to afford temporary insurance.

“It’s just really expensive,” she said. “So this place has saved me – and saved my sanity.”

Cathy Bartoo is a church volunteer who works the patient check-in table each week. She keeps coming back, she said, motivated by memories of the difficulties her son faced living without insurance.

“So many of these people had jobs for years, and all of a sudden you lose your job and your insurance and the next thing you know, you’re going to lose your house. It’s a really scary situation,” she said.

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“So if we can give them a little peace, comfort – at least take care of some of their needs – that’s one thing they don’t have to worry about.”

Long before he found the donated space at First United Methodist, Ghazarian operated the clinic out of his private office. But as the number of patients increased, so did his need for more room.

Equality before God

After bouncing around for several years at various locations, Ghazarian found a partner in Lofftus, who – with the blessing of her church, First United Methodist – set aside five rooms in the old education building for a semi-permanent clinic.

“What every human being deserves when it comes to medicine is good health care,” Ghazarian said, in-between patients. “That’s what we want to provide here. Ultimately, in God’s eyes, we’re all the same.”

Born and raised in Iran during his country’s war with Iraq, Ghazarian said he learned at a young age the importance of sharing others’ burdens.

“Times were tough,” he said. “And when times were tough people helped each other.”

The decision to open a free clinic years later in America, he said, came naturally.

Classrooms in the
church’s education
building are transformed
into exam rooms.

“Where would [these patients] be if there’s nothing like this?” Ghazarian asked. “Either at home getter sicker or in ER wasting resources.”

Hospitals charge, on average, $300 per visit to the emergency room. Since most without insurance can’t afford the bill, it’s often passed on to others in the form of higher insurance premiums. By comparison, Lofftus said, the church clinic can treat most ailments for under $14.

“We thought that if we could keep one patient a month out of the ER, then it would be worth it,” she said.

Hours after opening the clinic for the evening, as the number of patients in the waiting room began to diminish, Lofftus was still filling prescriptions in the pharmacy. She would be there long after the clinic closed, filling out paperwork.

“We’re so invigorated by what we do. It’s like a mission,” she said. “I’m not going to a foreign country. I’m doing it in my own church.”

*Simmons is a freelance writer and producer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.  

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