SOLANA BEACH — Its founder has been noticeably absent from the exam rooms for the past several months, but the St. James and St. Leo Medical and Dental Program continues the philanthropic legacy of Dr. Dick Wheelock, providing medical and dental care for those in need.
Every Saturday morning and Wednesday night, the uninsured arrive early at the clinics on Genevieve Street waiting for treatment for everything from diabetes to ingrown toenails and dental hygiene information for their children.
“The people we serve really are the working poor,” said Kathy Templin, a nurse practitioner who has been volunteering at the medical clinic since its inception in 1991. “Some people get the wrong idea. But our patients are really working. They’re in our homes and our yards and our restaurants. They just can’t afford insurance.”
Wheelock, while still a practicing physician, traveled to Mexico with his wife, Mary, as part of Mission Circle, a service group of the St. James and St. Leo Catholic Community that helps the poor in Tijuana, Mexico.
But getting equipment and supplies across the border was difficult. “He knew there were people closer to home who had no medical care,” Templin said. “So he asked Deacon (Albert) Graff for space at St. Leo’s Mission.
Wheelock and his small team of volunteers began offering health care in an area used for religious education.
“We usurped part of it for the clinic on Saturdays for a couple of exam rooms,” Templin recalled. “We drew blood in the kitchen while they were cooking. That got a little tricky. We realized we were overwhelmed and needed to expand.”
With help from the Del Mar Rotary Club, the clinic grew to include more exam rooms and a pharmacy area.
“The church gave us the space, and the Rotary really took on the work, manpower and funding to get it done,” Templin said.
In 1993 a portable trailer was added to the parking lot and dental services were offered to children, initially providing a diagnosis and referral to a dentist who agreed to charge a reduced rate.
City officials eventually said the “unsightly trailer” had to be removed so the dental clinic was moved to St. James on Nardo Avenue, with the church used as a waiting room.
“Dr. (Bob) Bobbit used to joke that he had the biggest waiting room in the world for just one office,” Templin said.
She said dentists would perform an exam and sometimes write prescriptions, but the patients rarely followed through after the initial visit. Space was identified at St. Leo Mission and once again the Rotary Club came through with the manpower and funding, and a permanent dental clinic with the necessary equipment was added.
Originally open just on Saturday mornings, the clinics treated about 20 to 25 patients. Wednesday evenings were added and now about 80 to 85 people are seen weekly for medical and dental care.
In addition to treating children, the dental clinic also participates in the Welcome Home ministry by providing dental services for female prisoners who have been deemed “determined to change their lives.”
“Many of them have terrible teeth, and it’s hard to get a job because the first thing people notice is their smile, or lack thereof,” Templin said.
The dental clinic doesn’t offer services to any other adults, “which is a problem,” Templin said. “We get a lot of calls for adults.”
Combined program expenses were $73,000 for the last fiscal year. Since everyone who works there is a volunteer — including physicians, dentists, nurses, nurse practitioners, assistants, health technicians, administrators and translators — all money is spent on medications and other supplies, equipment and utilities.
Funding comes from grants large and small. The clinics recently received $1,450 from the Calvary Lutheran Church of Del Mar Mission Endowment Fund, as well as $2,000 each from the city of Solana Beach and Santa Fe Christian Schools.
Two electronic exam tables were donated by a retiring physician and a fundraiser was held to purchase a new automated external defibrillator because the prior donated one was so outdated, replacement batteries weren’t available, Templin said.
Patients are asked to make a voluntary $10 donation for services but no one is refused treatment. “Some really can’t afford the $10,” Templin said.
People with any type of insurance, however, are turned away. By accepting no payment from patients the clinics qualify for federal malpractice insurance for the physicians and nurses.
“That helps us recruit volunteers,” Templin said.
The clinics have an agreement with Scripps Hospital for patients who need more extensive treatment, such as diagnostic services or surgery.
“If they qualify financially they have to fill out paperwork, which is the biggest challenge,” Templin said. “Scripps will provide some treatments for free. We have surgeons who donate their services but the hospital has to donate the time and supplies so we try to be discriminating about asking.”
The clinic now has seven small but fairly well-equipped exam rooms, some outfitted for specific branches of medicine, such as dermatology, cardiology and gynecology.
Templin said the most frequent treatments are for Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, back pain and high cholesterol.
She said there is a need for an ophthalmologist, especially for diabetics, and a urologist She said diabetes is common in Hispanics. And while many patients are Latino, some are not.
“We do have Anglo patients who are out of work,” she said. “We’re just trying to fill a gap.”
Clinic hours are Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 6:30 to 9 p.m. The offices were closed March 8 for the funeral service and celebration of life for Wheelock, who worked in the clinic since he founded it in 1991 until last year.
While his infectious smile will be missed, his efforts to help those most in need will be remembered for generations.