Bridges to Health Serves Almost 3,000 People in Need

By Julie Lorenz

​About 600 Adventist volunteers participated in Bridges to Health, an outreach event that brought free medical and dental services to almost 3,000 people over a three-day period. Some community members lined up overnight to make sure they could receive care at the San Francisco Armory on April 23 and 24, and Coliseum in Oakland on April 25. In all, more than $5.2 million of medical services were provided.

The “medical mission trip” was organized and sponsored by the Pacific Union chapter of Adventist-laymen’s Services & Industries (ASI). The Pacific Union Conference (PUC), the Central California Conference (CCC) and the Northern California Conference (NCC) served as co-sponsors. Many organizations within the Adventist church, including Adventist Health, were involved in the event.

About half of the volunteers were medical and dental professionals. Other volunteers served in a variety of supportive capacities to help as many people as possible. “We were working together for one goal – sharing Christ with those who are most in need,” said event organizer Lela Lewis, a physician from Ridgecrest, who serves as ASI Pacific Union president.

Many people mentioned that they could feel the presence of God throughout the three days. “The Holy Spirit energized and focused the health professionals, pastors and volunteers as they did the work Jesus asked us to do—helping other people,” said PUC President Ricardo Graham.

A Visit to the Clinic

Each morning as potential patients approached the doors, volunteers gave them paperwork to complete. Once inside, they were directed to registration tables where assistants helped them fill out the forms. Translators were available in a number of languages, including Mandarin, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese. Then patients went to the medical triage station to get their vital signs checked. Hospitality volunteers escorted patients between stations—screened off by curtains for privacy and containment—so that everyone moved as efficiently as possible. From triage, patients went to various clinical areas to receive medical and dental services.

Dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants provided a full spectrum of services, including crowns, root canals, extractions and teeth cleaning. Most of the dental equipment was provided by Adventist Medical Evangelism Network (AMEN). Dentistry was the most requested service, and appointments filled up early in the day. “The need for dental services is just as great right here in our own country as it is in many of the 25 other developing countries I’ve done mission dental trips in,” said Peter Nelson, a dentist from San Luis Obispo.

The need for people to hear about Jesus is just as great. Ted McDow, a dentist from Modesto, treated a man who asked what the volunteers were getting for doing their work. McDow told him that they were followers of Jesus and wanted to do what He did. When the patient said that he hoped he could go to heaven, “I was able to tell him just how easy it is,” said McDow, who prayed with him. The man later told McDow that he planned to visit an Adventist church in the area.

Eye care was the second most requested service. After their eye exams, patients chose from an assortment of glasses frames, trying them on, with the assistance of eye care volunteers. (Their prescription glasses were available for pickup several weeks later at local churches.) As nurse Gertie Warnick, from Martinez, performed eye exams, she met a 71-year-old man who hadn’t had new glasses in 20 years. Warnick was moved by the gratitude that her patients displayed. “They all were very thankful,” she said. “They couldn’t believe we were doing this work for free.”

Other medical services included primary care, women’s health, pediatrics, mental health, HIV/STD screening, x-rays, lab tests and minor surgeries. One man had a grapefruit-sized lipoma removed from his back. A number of the caregivers commented that they enjoyed serving patients in this venue because they could take extra time to make connections. “It was very freeing to work without the usual time restraints,” said occupational therapist Teresita Davis, from Martinez. “Usually it’s a choice between the patient and productivity standards.”

In the women’s health area, physician Melinda Skau, from Oroville, examined a woman who was unhappy with the 70 pounds she had gained. “We spent about 30 minutes handling the four issues that added to her weight,” said Skau. “At the close of our visit, when I asked if we could pray together, she responded excitedly, ‘Jesus helped me quit drugs, and now He is going to help me get healthy!’ She even prayed for me and the other caregivers.”

Throughout the event, pharmacists dispensed medications prescribed by the physicians. After helping an older woman, and arranging for follow-up care, pharmacist Susan Reed was surprised to see her come back the following day, saying that she had returned because Reed cared about her. “That was very heartwarming,” said Reed, who serves as corporate director of pharmacy operations at Adventist Health in Roseville. “If we touch but one life in a small way, we can make a difference.”

Extra acts of service meant a great deal to the visitors. Massage therapists gave many chair massages to surprised and grateful patients. Irma Nunez had come in for eye care, but after her exam she received a relaxing massage while her daughter interacted with volunteers in the childcare area. It was just the treatment that the busy mother needed. “It was beautiful! Oh my!” she said.

There were other extra touches designed to give the patients a positive experience. Students from Weimar Academy and Fountainview Academy serenaded the patients throughout the day with choral and instrumental music. Patients in the building at lunchtime received a free healthy meal. A children’s area kept kids and babies happy and safe. Weimar Academy students and other volunteers introduced the children to the eight laws of health at different stations, using a variety of fun activities. Before going home, each child received coloring books, storybooks and a stuffed animal.

After their exams and treatments, patients met with lifestyle counselors from the Health Evangelism And Leadership Training for Him (HEALTH) program of NEWSTART Global. The counselors reviewed surveys the patients had completed to document their lifestyle practices, such as smoking, exercise and diet. They then talked with the patients about the eight laws of health, suggested ways they could improve their health through lifestyle changes, and gave them a magazine about NEWSTART principles. “People really appreciated the one-on-one interaction,” said Sivasa Laupati, who works for NEWSTART Global.

Spiritual Health

Just before leaving, patients were offered a chance to meet individually with chaplains. During their conversations, the chaplains emphasized the connection between spiritual health and physical health. “We told them they are healthier when they are connected to a faith community, and we asked, ‘Do you have one?’” said Teresa Nelson, chaplain at Sonora Regional Medical Center.

They also asked if they could pray with the patients. “Most people said yes to prayer,” said Weimar College English instructor Cosmin Ritivoiu, who served as a chaplain. “Usually they were very thankful and open to telling me what their requests were.” Common requests included help with addictions and help for children and grandchildren.

Oftentimes just a few caring words made a difference in the lives of the people who attended. Paul Crampton, assistant vice president for mission and spiritual care at Adventist Health in Roseville, began talking with a couple waiting in line, and the woman burst into tears. He was afraid he had offended her, but it was just the opposite. “It’s been so long since someone has treated us with dignity that I couldn’t contain my emotions. Thank you so much!” she said. At the end of the day, Crampton saw the couple again. “They commented about how loving and caring everyone had been,” he said. “They told me, ‘I’ve heard it said many times that God is love, but today we experienced it through you people.’” They requested a referral to a local church.

A Year in the Making

The idea for Bridges to Health began almost exactly a year before at the 2013 ASI Pacific Union convention. Don Mackintosh, HEALTH director and campus chaplain for Weimar Institute, challenged the ASI members to plan a project for their next convention that would be in accordance with ASI’s motto: “Sharing Christ in the marketplace.” “The Holy Spirit very much inspired the board and me: this is definitely what God wants us to do,” said Lewis.

She and the board decided to host a large medical outreach event in either Los Angeles or San Francisco. They sent out proposals to the mayors’ offices in both cities and prayed that the Lord would direct them. The San Francisco mayor’s office gave an enthusiastic response. “They called, basically begging us to come,” said Lewis. “We took it as a sign that God wanted us to go to San Francisco.” Later she discovered that the Central and Northern California conferences were planning joint evangelism work in the Bay Area through a project called Bridges: Bay Area for Jesus. The medical event fit well into the conferences’ goals, and the organizations joined forces. It was decided to add a day of medical outreach in Oakland in order to offer help to both sides of the Bay.

Originally, Lewis and her team had planned to recruit about 20 medical providers to work with volunteers from other non-Adventist organizations. However, as time went on, enough Adventists signed up so that 98% of the volunteers were church members. They came from all over the United States and other parts of the world, including a woman from Saudi Arabia. “God orchestrated the whole thing, moving the plans in multiple directions to make it entirely a Seventh-day Adventist event, and getting us the support of the mayors and their health offices,” said Lewis. “In both cities, we saw multiple, blatant miracles of God.”

Spreading the Word

A challenge that worried organizers was discovering ways to reach the people who could benefit from Bridges to Health. Local church members, Weimar Academy students and others distributed flyers and put up posters in neighborhoods. Students from SoulsWest handed out tens of thousands of flyers. Local newspaper owner and Adventist Paul Cobb promoted the event throughout Oakland. Signs were posted in BART stations, in buses and on billboards. Press releases were sent out, which brought the media in droves. During the event, all major Bay Area news outlets reported on it, including the three major television stations in the area—several doing live feeds from the event itself. In all, almost 20 media outlets carried stories about Bridges to Health, including USA Today. A photograph of the event became one of The Wall Street Journal’s “Photos of the Day.”

The advertising and publicity worked! More than 1,700 people received care during the two days spent in San Francisco, and more than 1,100 received care at the one-day event in Oakland.

Recognition from Mayors’ Offices

Bridges to Health coincided with the annual convention of ASI Pacific Union, this year held south of San Francisco in Burlingame. On Sabbath afternoon, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan spoke to the volunteers, thanking them for their work in her city. “All your work has truly been a blessing for our city. We want to thank you for the work you did,” she said. “We hope you can come back sometime.”

Representing San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was Kara Zordel, executive director of Project Homeless Connect in San Francisco. She repeated Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous quote: “America is great because she is good” and told the volunteers, “Thank you for bringing good to our community.”

During her response to the officials, ASI Pacific Union President Lela Lewis said: “It’s been a tremendous blessing. We are so happy as a Seventh-day Adventist group to work with you and collaborate with you to help those in need.”

The Need Is Great

While there are numerous wonderful stories about the many who were helped during the three days in San Francisco and Oakland, unfortunately there are many people who were turned away. In Oakland alone, about 3,500 people had lined up by 7 a.m. on Friday. Organizers had to estimate how many could realistically be served and let the others know that they wouldn’t be able to receive treatment.

The need for future events such as this is great. NCC President Jim Pedersen and CCC President Ramiro Cano want their two conferences to continue to reach people in these cities through the joint-conference program, Bridges: Bay Area for Jesus. “I am really excited about reaching these communities and neighborhoods more—with the hope that Jesus has given us. This medical event was just the beginning,” Pedersen said. Cano agrees. “I’m so grateful that so many of us are coming together from many walks of life with one purpose,” he said, “and that is to relieve the hurting in our communities.”

Lewis hopes that Bridges to Health will serve as a model for others interested in this type of mission work. “There is no reason this can’t be replicated everywhere in cities across the nation,” she said. “Our goal is to be able to equip our people on a nationwide city effort.” Plans are in the works to bring a similar event to San Antonio, Texas, prior to the General Conference Session there in 2015.

Events such as this can be done on a smaller scale, as well. “At the union, we are already developing plans to implement this model at the local conference, local church and local hospital level,” said PUC Vice President Arnold Trujillo.

​Lewis gives all the credit for the event’s success to God. “Prayer moves the mighty arm of God. We saw this on many, many occasions,” she said. “I believe with all my heart that God blessed in such a mighty way because we sought to do His will and present his love, without wanting a specific result. We sought to follow His blueprint according to the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy, which implore each of us as Seventh-day Adventists to go out and do these humanitarian efforts on a local level—to do work just as Christ did for those in need.”