From Bootstrap to the Biggest of Its Kind: Venice Family Clinic Turns 40!
On a seemingly ordinary Monday in Venice, California, in October 1970, as most businesses went dark for the evening, a small dental office on Lincoln Boulevard flickered back to life. Two physicians stepped inside and surveyed the situation.
“Medical records – we need a spot that’s out of the way,” one remarked.
“Where will we put medications?” the other asked. “Maybe we can find someone to build us a cabinet.”
“Have you ever done a pelvic exam in a dental chair?”
“No, but I think we can make it work.”
Amid the questions and answers, the doctors busily unpacked their bags in preparation for whoever might walk through the door. Word had gone out that a new free clinic was opening in the neighborhood, which was one of the poorest on the Westside of Los Angeles County, and neither doctor knew what to expect.
“There wasn’t a big fanfare. About a dozen patients showed up,” says Mayer B. Davidson, MD, one of the two there that day. “We learned as we went.”
The conditions conjure images of a small-scale humanitarian relief mission and, in many ways, that’s what it was. For years, the neighborhood’s low-income residents had bristled at not having an affordable health care facility nearby. They pointed to the fact that there was only one physician in all of Venice who accepted Medi-Cal (California's Medicaid program), and he would only see those patients one afternoon a week.
In 1969, a group of Venice residents went so far as to protest at the opening ceremony of a county clinic in Santa Monica. There, an internist named Phillip Rossman, MD, saw their pickets, invited them inside to share their concerns, and quickly promised to do what he could to help.
Around the same time, Dr. Davidson, an endocrinologist, read an article about a teen clinic set up by volunteer physicians in Ohio and mentioned to a colleague his interest in doing something similar in Los Angeles. The colleague had heard what Dr. Rossman was trying to do in Venice and suggested they collaborate. In June 1970, they met for the first time.
The two were at opposite ends of their careers – Dr. Davidson just out of the army and Dr. Rossman with decades of experience in private practice – but in an identical place philosophically.
“He was a kindhearted man, a gentleman, and extremely focused,” Dr. Davidson says of the late Dr. Rossman. “He really kept after things. If he got subverted one way, he would try another. He was a very dedicated person.”
As they left the building that first evening – October 12, to be precise – they paused to shake hands, neither knowing how long their fledgling clinic would, or could, last.
“It was such a bootstrap operation that I don’t think we thought about five years, ten years down the line,” Dr. Davidson says. “We just wanted to keep it going as long as we could.”
So they formalized it with a name, Venice Family Clinic, giving an immediate indication of the organization’s scope and ethos. It was open five evenings a week.
Within a couple years, Venice Family Clinic was seeing about 500 patients per month, from homeless people to hippies to low-income laborers. Twenty to thirty physicians volunteered their time. Residents of the area helped staff the front desk. Local hospitals donated lab, x-ray, and emergency services. And the location was provided free of charge by UCLA’s School of Dentistry.
Slowly, it became less of a day-to-day proposition. Several small fund-raising events were held. One of the volunteers secured a research grant from the state. A small staff was hired. More volunteers got involved. And so on.
In 1978, shortly after a new volunteer, Irma Colen, had come on board, the potential longevity of Venice Family Clinic came into full view. Under Irma’s masterful guidance, fund raising took off, and by 1982, emboldened in part by the financial success of a new event called the Venice Art Walk, the Clinic’s leadership began thinking about purchasing a permanent home. In 1983, this new home, at 604 Rose Avenue, just a few blocks from the original site, was dedicated.
Dr. Rossman, who is formally recognized as Venice Family Clinic’s Founder, grew ill and passed away in 1990, although he very well may have had an inkling of what the future held for the organization, including expanding east on Rose Avenue, taking over two county clinics – one, ironically, being the site in Santa Monica where Venice residents had protested in 1969 – and becoming the largest free clinic in the country, all by the mid-1990s. Looking back on everything that was set in motion back in 1970, Dr. Davidson, who carries the title of Co-Founder, is almost incredulous.
“In those days, who would have ever thought we would need 40 years of vision?!” he says, referring to the Visionary Award he will receive at Venice Family Clinic’s Silver Circle Gala in February. “We thought it would just fill a temporary gap. No one anticipated that we would be doing what we’re doing today. It feels wonderful, in a way. But it’s sad that we need to continue doing it.”
Venice Family Clinic now operates eight sites in Venice, Santa Monica, Mar Vista, and Culver City, serving more than 24,400 patients annually. In addition to primary care and more than a dozen kinds of specialty care, it provides dental care, vision care, mental health services, integrative medicine, health education, even public health insurance enrollment. More than 2,000 volunteers donate their time.
“People like me can’t do this kind of thing by themselves,” Dr. Davidson says. “It requires a tremendous amount of collaboration and volunteerism. People’s commitment to this is really remarkable.”
His own commitment to Venice Family Clinic is on display on the first Wednesday of every month, when he sees patients at the Rose Avenue location. He is also a member of the Clinic’s Board of Directors.
“It will sound silly, but it’s still true,” he says. “What I get out of it is that it’s the right thing to do and I feel good doing it. That hasn’t changed.”
These days, Dr. Davidson is a world-renowned specialist in the field of diabetes who, besides running a very large diabetes program for the L.A. County Department of Health Services and being a professor of medicine at Charles R. Drew University and at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, has written more than 150 scientific papers; 30 book chapters; 100 reviews, editorials, and invited articles; and three books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Type 2 Diabetes. But he thinks nothing rivals his work with Venice Family Clinic.
“In terms of contributions to medicine,” he says, “this is the biggest one I’ve made.”
Nevertheless, when asked what he planned on doing on the day of the anniversary, he seemed only to want to keep doing things as he has from the start.
“Mostly, I’ll just feel good inside,” he says. “I’ll be running a diabetes clinic in the morning. In the afternoon, I have a doctor’s appointment.”