Feb. 12, 2001 (San Mateo, Calif.) -- Floriberto sits on the
edge of an exam table, wearing a zippered gray sweatshirt, jeans, sandals, an
immaculately crisp Raiders cap, and a look of unrelenting pain. His right cheek
A day laborer from Mexico, he has a severely infected tooth.
"I tried to find help," he says through an interpreter. "I went
door to door for a doctor, but no one would help."
In Nora Ephron's best-selling book, I Feel Bad About My Neck, she
laments the sorry state of her 60-something neck: "Our faces are lies and our
necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is,
but you wouldn't have to if it had a neck," she writes.
"Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever's writing it says it's
great to be old. It's great to be wise and sage and mellow; it's great to be at
the point where you understand just what matters in life. I...
Finally, his sister suggested the right door: Samaritan House
Clinic. He will be examined here, in a low-slung, nondescript building in San
Mateo, because he meets the clinic's three prerequisites. He is indigent, has
no health insurance, and lives within the geographical boundaries of Millbrae
and San Carlos -- prospering suburbs between San Francisco and Silicon
"Most communities have this population of invisible
people," says William Schwartz, MD, a retired internist who co-founded the
clinic in 1992. "You see these elegant Hillsborough addresses on the forms,
but they're not paying the mortgage. They're living in a room over the
About two-thirds of the clinic's patients speak Spanish, though
many other languages and cultures are represented. These are men and women who
work as nannies, gardeners, and dishwashers, living as many as five to a room
to keep up with the Bay Area's steep rents. Some are here legally; others are
not. (Samaritan House makes no distinction.) Most have treatable medical
problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or tuberculosis that become
emergencies if not caught early.
Floriberto needs immediate attention. Schwartz will refer him
to an outside dentist, for services not available at Samaritan House. The
patient will return to the clinic a week later for a prescription of
antibiotics and will receive ongoing dental care there for weeks.
Samaritan House Clinic certainly isn't the only place in
America that dispenses free health care, but its structure could make it a
model for other communities. The clinic has a rotating staff of 25 to 30
doctors, plus at least 15 registered nurses, 12 clerks, and 15 interpreters.
Yet only three positions are paid, and one of them is half time. The rest are
volunteers, and most of them are retired.
Or, we should say, they are not still working full time for
pay. "I don't like to say 'retired,'" says Schwartz. "I prefer to
talk about the 'transition phase.' Well, this phase could be one-third of a
doctor's life. We're talking about people with a tremendous amount to
The clinic is an offshoot of Samaritan House, a nonprofit
organization that provides food, clothing, and other social services to the
needy. The clinic began as a one-room, one-night-a-week operation with two
doctors and one nurse. When it moved into new space in 1996, Schwartz
encountered a problem. "Lo and behold, our volunteers couldn't work in the
day," he says. "They had jobs."