Andrea Pozo of Hayward is checked by Dr. Tom Wallace, a volunteer doctor at The Order of Malta Clinic of Northern California near Lake Merritt in Oakland. Pozo became the 25,000 patient to be seen at the free clinic, which has been in existence for 10 years in the Cathedral of Christ the Light. (The Order of Malta Clinic of Northern California)
OAKLAND — Beyond the soft hues in the crisp waiting room of the Order of the Malta Clinic for Northern California, a man, perhaps in his 40s, is being assessed by an intake worker for an illness he can’t afford to treat.
That man will be welcomed into one of the small clinic exam rooms and treated, for free, by retired doctors and current doctor residents who volunteer at the clinic for the love of medicine.
The clinic, on the campus of the Cathedral of Christ the Light on the shores of Lake Merritt, just celebrated its 25,000th patient visit in nearly 10 years of service. And while it fills a need that is urgent and growing in the Bay Area — health care for people who have no insurance — it’s relatively unknown in the city.
“We serve your gardener, your housekeeper, your friends in between jobs,” said John Christian, president of the board of directors of Order of the Malta Clinic Northern California. “When we opened almost 10 years ago, before there were any discussions of the ACA (Affordable Care Act), there was a recognized need in the East Bay that folks living in the margins weren’t getting health care.”
The Order of Malta is a lay Catholic order that began more than 1,000 years ago as a hospice in the Holy Land to take care of the sick. In modern times, it still has a focus on taking care of the poor and ill. The Oakland clinic has surpassed many people’s expectations of viability as many similar clinics usually only last about two years because of costs, Christian said.
The clinic is what Christian calls “the first line of defense” for people with no health care, which is the only requirement for service. They are not an emergency clinic but rather are specialists who help patients with diabetes care or heart issues, for example, before those issues land the patients in the emergency room. Exams and tests are free, and the clinic works with a network of pharmacies to help patients get the most low-cost medicines available.
People make appointments to come to the clinic from all over the East Bay. They get 30-minute appointments, instead of the standard six-minute ones in private practice. The clinic also supports a once-a-month podiatry clinic at the St. Vincent de Paul Society, where patients receive much-needed podiatry services and free, clean socks and new shoes.
And as patients benefit, so do the volunteer doctors who see them. Dr. John Gunderson, of Orinda, was an emergency room doctor for 27 years and retired in January. He is going back to the basics of primary care at The Order of Malta clinic, diagnosing and treating basic medical problems like high blood pressure and cholesterol issues.
“It’s a nice way to keep engaged,” he said. Previously, he had been in charge of three private clinics, and doing medicine was almost secondary to all the paperwork he had to do. “The paperwork with a regular practice is challenging.”
“Basically, there’s so much love here,” he said. “(Patients) need help, and we can relate to them very closely, and they can relate to us very closely. We have a lot to offer.”
Sara Cambleich, also on the board of directors, said money for the clinic’s small paid staff and other expenses is raised from members of The Order of Malta, through private grants and a fundraising dinner held annually at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco that features a silent auction and other activities.
“This clinic has our name on the front door,” she said. “We are all beholden to this clinic. It is an expression of what we’re called to do as knights and dames of Malta. This is a way to give back.”
The Order of Malta Clinic of Northern California is located at 2121 Harrison Street, #110 in Oakland. For information on hours and services, please contact www.orderofmaltaclinic.com.