There is a familiar elegance to what takes place inside a medical office in Mar Vista every Saturday morning.
Beginning at 9:00 am, when the site would normally be closed, the front doors reopen, volunteers take up their positions at the front desk, at the coordinators' stations, and in the doctors' charting area, and low-income and uninsured patients begin filing in. The scene is reminiscent of Venice Family Clinic in its earliest days, when it was run entirely by volunteers out of a donated dental office.
Except this time around Venice Family Clinic is the host—at its newest site, the Irma Colen Health Center—and the volunteers come from the Sathya Sai Baba Organization, a worldwide social service network created by spiritual teacher Sathya Sai Baba. And instead of bringing their own patients, they treat the Clinic's patients.
"We've been doing health screening clinics twice a year for the last eight years," explains Dr. Chandradas Cangaeretnam, the group's local Medical Director. "But we were only able to refer patients to local clinics and health centers. We couldn't provide any of the care ourselves. Our dream was to have our own clinic."
That dream came true on May 1, just a couple months after the Irma Colen Health Center opened. Now, every Saturday, four or five doctors, along with a dentist and about a dozen other volunteers, see thirty to forty patients. They are assisted by just a handful of Venice Family Clinic staff members.
Of course, Venice Family Clinic has always been volunteer-driven—today, there are roughly ten volunteers for every staff member, and physicians alone total more than 500 per year—and it is not unusual for large groups of fellows or residents to staff a specialty clinic during the week alongside the Clinic's usual programming.
The Sai Baba group takes it a step further by organizing nearly 80 volunteers across a variety of disciplines,including 15 primary care doctors, three dentists, and a growing list of specialists. They even have their own coordinators and clinic manager. The group's physicians, nurses, and medical assistants are all clinicians in their full-time work, but other volunteers are engineers, college students, and other non-health workers just looking to help. Many come from more than two hours away.
Shyam Bhaskar, MD, a pediatrician and internist, drives nearly 200 miles—three hours in light traffic—from Visalia, just for the Saturday clinic, once a month.
"My day starts at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning because I see all my patients in the hospital before coming here," Dr. Bhaskar says. "But I don't feel like I'm working at all. It's as though some hand is guiding me to these patients."
He usually sees between ten and fifteen patients, then turns around, drives home, and talks up the experience to his friends.
"When I tell my people back in Visalia, they are all interested," he says. "A cardiologist wants to come, a retiring neurologist wants to come, and several nurses, too. They are all very eager."
The Sathya Sai Baba Organization has programs in approximately 145 countries and runs four free hospitals in India—two specialty hospitals and two general hospitals. And while all of the group's volunteers espouse Sai Baba's philosophy of service, the group does not seek to establish a new religion or to direct people to a particular creed or religion.
"Our organization consists of members of all religions, "Michael Congleton, MD, PhD, President of the group's Pacific South Region 8, explains. "We believe in God and we believe we need to serve others. Our spiritual teacher says, 'Don't change your religion—practice it.'"
Congleton, who drives from Carlsbad, says the experience also provides valuable education to the group's volunteers.
"What we learn here we're hoping to leverage to help others in Southern California," he explains, noting that a city in Riverside County is interested in working with the group to set up a free clinic.
Their motivation is simple, he says.
"Our biggest joy is serving others. Spirituality comes from service."
This story appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Encounters. Click here download the entire newsletter as a PDF.