Venice Family Clinic's new Irma Colen Health Center, in Mar Vista. The new site triples the Clinic's capacity in the neighborhood, which is home to the largest concentration of low-income families on the Westside. Photo: Margaret Molloy
Though her father drove her to this visit, Joahnna looks forward to being well enough one day to make it on her own to the Irma Colen Health Center. Walking that one city block will be a major milestone in her recovery. Photo: Margaret Molloy
Location, Location, Location

Venice Family Clinic opens a new site, the Irma Colen Health Center, in Mar Vista.

Editor’s note: the name of the new site in Mar Vista changed following publication of this story in the Spring 2010 issue of Encounters. In the print edition, it appears as the Colen Family Health Center. The name has been updated in this online version.

At first glance, you would never suspect all that Joahnna Ramirez, 18, has endured. As she leaves the coordinator’s station at Venice Family Clinic’s new Irma Colen Health Center, in Mar Vista, she moves slowly and with the help of a walker, but seems only to favor her left foot, which is bandaged as if she sprained her ankle playing basketball.

About three months ago, however, she was a passenger in a car on the 405 freeway that flipped over, rolled seven times, and came to rest on top of her. She suffered damage to her lungs, her liver, her spleen, and the nerves running down her legs. Both of her pelvic bones were broken, and she had a severed urethra. “They had to open me up,” Joahnna says, using her finger to draw a vertical line about six inches long simulating the incision surgeons made in her abdomen to remove her spleen. “I have two more on my back, where they put screws in my spine.”

The accident left her in a wheelchair, and doctors warned that she might never walk again. Still, here she is, walking. And smiling. She smiles at everyone.

“She’s doing really well,” says Dr. Anne Arikian, her Venice Family Clinic physician. “Fortunately, she’s very young. But she also has a great attitude. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself.”

Dr. Arikian has known Joahnna since 2005, when Venice Family Clinic opened a site inside the nearby Mar Vista Gardens public housing development, where Joahnna’s family lives. That site was much too small to meet the needs of the surrounding community, so the Clinic recently signed a lease on a 3,400-squarefoot space one block away, just outside the housing development.

The Irma Colen Health Center—named in honor of Lou and Irma Colen and their family, whose $1 million gift made the new site possible—opened March 1, 2010. Its seven exam rooms and one counseling room will accommodate approximately 4,000 patients and 15,000 visits per year—triple the capacity of the previous site.

On this particular day, in mid-April, most of the patients are pregnant women and families with young children. Few need the kind of intensive case management that Joahnna requires.

“She sees a variety of specialists at UCLA—an orthopedist, a neurologist, a urologist, and a physical therapist—as well as a dermatologist in West Los Angeles, and we case manage all of that for her,” Dr. Arikian explains, noting that Joahnna has CCS, a public insurance program for children with disabilities. “Plus, we’re trying to get her a wheelchair and physical therapy at home. Most patients, even those with private insurance, don’t have the medical knowledge or the time to succeed at this. It takes hours.”

Joahnna’s many medical needs are discernible in her scars. Besides those from her surgeries, she has fierce gouges on her left hand, left arm, right leg, and right shoulder, as well as on the right side of her face—three parallel lines running from her temple to her jaw.

And she has emotional scars. The accident occurred just months after she graduated from high school; she had planned on going to Santa Monica College to study art.

“I felt like everybody else’s lives kept going, but mine stopped,” she says. “For a month, I was just lying in bed in the hospital. I got so depressed.”

So Joahnna also meets with Steve Artiga, one of Venice Family Clinic’s licensed clinical social workers, who visits the Irma Colen Health Center on Thursdays.

“It makes me feel much better, having him to talk to,” she says. “I’m much less depressed.”

While most other patients’ needs might be quite different from Joanna’s, they are no less important. Pregnant women visit for prenatal care; kids for immunizations and physicals; adults with chronic diseases to keep their conditions under control. Hence, the comprehensiveness of care offered at the Irma Colen Health Center is similar to that at other Venice Family Clinic sites.

The Clinic’s staff dental team stops by once a week. So does Dr. Victor Perez, a pediatrician specializing in school function. Volunteers from Sathya Sai Baba Group run a Saturday clinic providing primary care and dentistry, with orthopedics soon to follow. And a new three-year pilot project, funded by the OneWest Foundation and the UCLA Health System, will enable qualified uninsured patients to access specialty care and hospitalization at UCLA.

But clearly one of the most important features of the Irma Colen Health Center is its location.

Mar Vista is home to the largest concentration of low-income families on the Westside, many of whom work long days made even longer by lengthy commutes. Even before the Irma Colen Health Center opened, residents of Mar Vista and surrounding Palms and Culver City made up more than a third of Venice Family Clinic’s patient population. The vast majority got their care at one of the Clinic’s sites in Venice or Santa Monica.

The Irma Colen Health Center, at the intersection of Braddock Drive and Inglewood Boulevard, is a short drive for most in the neighborhood and walking distance for many. It is also just steps from partner agencies providing additional family services.

The proximity of the Irma Colen Health Center means a lot to all of its patients, but perhaps none more than Joahnna, who visits about once a week. Her father, Melvin, drove her to this particular appointment, but she looks forward to eventually making the trip on her own. Walking that one city block will be a major milestone in her recovery.

One of the staff members asks her when that might happen. Joahnna has only been walking for the past week, but she doesn’t hesitate to answer.

“Any day now.”

This story appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Encounters. Click here to download the entire newsletter as a PDF.

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