CHAPTER 2

South El Monte Medical Clinics

Written by Audrey Cheng, Jennifer Chien, Lina Lin, and Pheel Wang

南愛滿地的慈濟中醫師陳新恭為病患把脈

Tzu Chi’s acupuncturist, Shincung Chen, takes a patient’s pulse in South El Monte. Photo/Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation

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On August 3, 2005, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic adjusted its name to the Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, and the Foundation opened a campus in South El Monte, California, where the second community clinic also opened because of a considerable need for care in the local area. In 2008, the community clinic added dental services, and medical volunteer training and community healthcare workshops were also often held.

Helping Those Most in Need

There was a weighty reason why South El Monte was chosen to be the venue for a second clinic. According to a report published by the United States Census Bureau, the percentage of people living in poverty in South El Monte, California, is 21.5%, nearly double the national average of 11.5% as of 2022. Instead of choosing a more metropolitan area, the city was selected so that those in need could be served close to their homes, saving them from needing to travel, and helping end the cycle of poverty in local neighborhoods.

Acupuncturist Shincung Chen, Director of the Tzu Chi Community Clinic in South El Monte, guided it along its development path. “In the beginning, we didn’t have many patients because the local residents didn’t know about Tzu Chi, and then it slowly stabilized,” he said, adding, “Ten years later, we served about 600 patients every month. We didn’t have enough volunteers at the beginning either, and we have grown gradually since then.” While celebrating the 30th anniversary of Tzu Chi’s medical mission in the United States, Chen is also celebrating entering his 80s. He has contributed most of his career to Tzu Chi. Before he retired, he also served as a board member of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation and has been working hard to add new talents to the team and pass on the torch of the medical mission. 

Dr. Peter C. Chen, a dentist, is also a doctor at the community clinic. He has worked so long his black hair has turned gray, passing many years diligently taking care of his patients. He has countless hours of experience serving during Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic outreach and has visited many low-income neighborhoods for winter clinic events for people experiencing homelessness. If he encountered a dental problem that was not treatable in a single visit, he would tell the anxious patient not to worry since he would be at the following community clinic to continue their treatment. He has proven to be a lifesaver for many who can’t afford dental treatments, whose toothaches may be so painful that they can’t sleep at night, or whose nerve pain has become overwhelming. 

When describing how our unhoused neighbors treated their dental issues before Tzu Chi, Carlos Gonzalez went into heart-wrenching detail: “We don’t have the money to buy medicine or first aid supplies, so I use pliers to pull out the decayed tooth, then I use whiskey to sterilize. I take strong adhesive glue to attach the tooth back in place, and then I have to put more and more on it for it to stick on, and one day, when I was eating a hamburger, I accidentally swallowed the tooth.” Many of those living in precarious housing situations do not eat a balanced diet, which additionally leads to decreased oral hygiene and gum health, with the potential of developing oral infections, such as tooth decay and gum disease, losing one’s teeth, and more. Without dental insurance, they have no recourse but to live with their toothache or potential infections day after day. When they can’t stand it any longer, they have no other option but to try risky DIY treatments. “I had to use acid from batteries to kill the nerve,” continued Tzu Chi medical care recipient Carlos Gonzalez, describing the lengths he had to go to before the clinic offered dental services.

“People suffering and experiencing homelessness have the most severe dental health situations I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Chen. He is a generally reserved person, yet he gives his all to his patients. After Dr. Chen’s treatments, a patient who had been suffering from extreme pain asked the dental assistant for a mirror, saying, “I’ve forgotten what my teeth are supposed to look like.” 

Some even burst into tears after their pain was relieved, and Dr. Chen gently comforted them like a kindly grandparent. “Don’t worry, please take good care of yourself,” he’d say.

南愛滿地慈濟醫療志業園區一隅
A corner of the South El Monte Tzu Chi Medical Foundation campus. Photo/Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation

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