A hot health-care metaphor
Oroville multicultural event reflects growing need for public services
Southside Oroville’s B Street dead-ends into Martin Luther King Jr. Park right between the No. 1 Church of God in Christ and a boarded-up house. These days, the house is surrounded by tall weeds parched brown from the sun and a lack of water.
This past Saturday, Aug. 29, a young couple could be seen sitting on the steps of the house, wilting in the afternoon heat of a blistering day, watching the comings and goings of the people attending the first-ever Beyond the Walls Multicultural Health Event, held on the green lawn of the expansive park.
Put on by the Butte County Department of Public Health, Oroville’s Beyond the Walls Ministry and the Hmong Cultural Center of Butte County, the fair offered something for everyone—free food and drinks and multicultural entertainment; informative guest speakers such as Oroville doctor Nhia Vang talking in “Hmonglish,” as he put it, about diabetes; raffles for bikes, backpacks and refurbished laptops; and a Hmong farmers’ market.
And information—lots of it at the numerous tables ringing the park—on health care, as well as free Band-Aids, toothbrushes and dental floss, dental screenings for kids of kindergarten and first-grade age, blood-pressure and blood-sugar checks and bone-density screenings.
And—overwhelmingly—the sweltering heat.
Unless you managed to squeeze into the sliver of shade in front of the park’s stage while watching one of the day’s performances, or were lucky enough to be under the small canopy covering the health-care providers’ tables—which provided shade, but not coolness—you were pretty much dying on the vine.
Even the free bottles of water provided to thirsty attendees ran out about halfway through the day.
It was the perfect metaphor for the current dysfunctional state of health care—compassionate medical professionals trying to serve uninsured people under nearly impossible conditions.
Georgia Nelson, a Public Health nurse who works with the agency’s home-visiting program, braved the heat at a canopied table offering various informative brochures in English, Spanish and Hmong on such topics as family planning, fetal-alcohol syndrome, a class on properly installing children’s car seats, and methamphetamine recovery, as well as free tubes of sunscreen.
She also had plenty of information about the low-cost or no-cost health services available in Butte County, such as pregnancy testing, STD testing and treatment and breast-cancer screening.
Across the lawn, at Public Health’s Senior Health Improvement Program booth, Nelson’s supervisor, a friendly woman named Carla Velador, was checking the blood pressure of a pretty, young, African-American woman named Porsha Collins. “African-Americans,” one of her handouts advised, “are at increased risk for high blood pressure.”
Behind Velador and Collins, at the far end of the park, people romped in a spray of cold water blasted from a truck parked there.
Velador talked for a while about a man who had made an impression on her earlier in the day—a 40-year-old Caucasian man who works part-time and has no health insurance. Because he is functionally illiterate and also reticent about divulging his personal information, he was unable to complete the stack of forms (Velador pointed to a pile about three inches high) needed to get Medi-Cal and see a doctor.
It turned out, she said, that after she checked his blood pressure and blood sugar, “he had high blood pressure and diabetes. That was kind of news to him. He kind of thought he had diabetes, but he wasn’t too sure.
“There are very serious consequences to these diseases,” continued Velador. “I gave him a brochure and told him to call me. We’ll find someone to help him. … He kept telling me, ‘I’m 40 and, you know, it’s OK if I die.’ ”
Alice Kienzle, another Public Health nurse, was working at a sun-blasted table in front of the BCPH mobile medical unit. It was parked near the stage, where an adorable group of little Hmong girls had just finished a colorful dance presentation.
Kienzle shared a similar story of a person in need. “We just had someone who was just released from prison who had been having seizures,” she said, “and didn’t know where to go, so we walked her over to [the] Del Norte Clinics [table], and they did an intake on her.”
Kienzle’s table partner, Kathy Gilchrist, was making Public Health clinic appointments. She said she had noticed a general increase in use of public health services since the economy tanked, and for one service in particular.
“We’re actually doing a lot of [appointments for] the Mirana, a five-year IUD,” Gilchrist said, “because a lot of people can’t afford to have a family right now.”
Laurel Beyrer, the program coordinator for California Family Health Council Inc., the nonprofit umbrella organization that sponsored the event, had driven up from Los Angeles to check in on the health fair, something she has done for numerous similar CFHC-sponsored events up and down California.
Beyrer said that she “absolutely” has seen an increase in people showing up at health fairs of late.
“There’s a drastic increase in individuals in need of public-assistance service throughout the state,” said Beyrer. “County health departments and clinics are just inundated because people have lost their jobs and their health insurance. … We really need to make sure that our legislators know that we really need to include the public option in health-care reform. We want to get appropriate funding for all the people who aren’t getting services.”
Near the barbecue grill, where people formed the longest line at the health fair for free hot dogs, a man ran across the grass shouting, “Can somebody turn down the heat, please?”
He was talking about the temperature, but he could just as easily have been referring to the uncomfortable, depressing state of health care in California—a situation that health-care workers at this particular fair worked hard, and in blazing heat, to alleviate.