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The Flying Samaritans


Alan Spira, M.D., DTM&H

High over the barren desert of Baja California, Mexico, a caravan of small propeller-driven aircraft ride thermal drafts; a pale brown strip by a pueblo beckons and they prepare to land. They descend, and within minutes are on the ground; the crew rapidly unload supplies and gear, then begin walking into the village. The sun scorches the ground and waves of heat shimmer on the road. The local people smile in greeting, as these Flying Sams enter the clinic. Here, at the village of Jesus Maria, the poor and infirm have waited a month for this visit. Some have walked, others have ridden; some have had to come from scores of miles away. Rapidly the rooms fill and everyone gets to work. A pharmacy opens up; dentists begin delving into open mouths while next door an optometrist checks the locals' eyes. The chiropractors begin adjusting in the next room and a few feet away the physicians have begun to examine and treat other patients. A gentle hum of energy flows through the clinic, as it does every month, when these Samaritinos from El Norte arrive.

For over 25 years the Flying Samaritans have been flying down to Mexico to offer help. A non-profit, nonsectarian philanthropic organization, it began quite by fluke, when a plane flying north from a La Palmilla en route to San Diego ran into a dust storm in 1961 and was forced to land in El Rosario. One of the passengers was ill, but could not get treatment: the local hospital was abandoned, without supplies, equipment or staff. The village was impoverished and the nearest help was miles away. The Norteamericanos, Aileen Sanders and Polly Ross, were deeply touched by the difficult lives of the local Mexicans and returned for Christmas with supplies and gifts. With them came Dr. Dale E. Hoyt, who offered to see anyone who wanted his help, using the kitchen of their hosts Anita and Heraclio Espinoza as an office. Soon, regular monthly visits began and others volunteered their help: doctors, nurses, optometrists, carpenters, plumbers, among many others. In 1962 the Flying Samaritans was formally incorporated as a non-profit organization. It wasn't long before the Flying Samaritans had clinics in other villages in Baja California.

Now there are 12 chapters with 22 clinics operating in Baja California and Sonora, Mexico. The clinic in Jesus Maria is run by the Orange County chapter. The Orange County chapter was founded in 1977, by Gordon Gray, a former Marine Corps pilot. The clinic in Jesus Maria sees an average of 100 patients every clinic day. There are similar clinics run by Samaritans from the Mother Lode region of California, in the Central Valley, the Gold Coast, Foothill, L.A. Coastal, Palomar (with a UC Irvine student group), San Diego, Rosarito Beach and also Arizona chapters. There is even a specialty surgical clinic at one of the clinics in the town of San Quentin. Flying Samaritan clinics exist in the pueblos and towns of Bahia de Los Angeles, El Alamo, El Florido, El Rosario, El Testerazo, Erendira, Jesus Maria, Lopez Mateo, Playa Rosarito, Punta Prieta, Rancho Rosarito, San Felipe, San Simon, San Telmo, Santa Ynez, and Tecate (The Tecate Eye Clinic). The clinics offer medical assistance and education to the people in the rural parts of Mexico, and are free of charge to all patients.

The Flying Sams are all volunteers, with big hearts and bigger enthusiasm, keen to give service. Pilots, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, optometrists, chiropractors, translators and doctors all contribute equally. Often there is also a "pasante", from a school or university in Mexico who comes along for extra training and experience. There are even more people, back in the States, who, though invisible, make invaluable contributions to keeping the organization running and cohesive.

The clinics, which occur every month, last a weekend. In any weekend, hundreds of patients may be seen. In some cases, these clinics are the only medical care in a 200-mile radius. Each chapter runs its own clinics, so there is consistency and a relationship with the communities served. This continuity adds great depth to the relationship between the local population and the Samaritans. Moreover, many Sams volunteer at other chapters, helping out when a hand is needed.

© 1997 Alan Spira M.D., The Travel Medicine Center Beverly Hills, California.

There is a Flying Samaritan web site worth visiting at For further information about the Flying Sams, you can call 714-731-6834 or write to The Flying Samaritans, 1100 Irvine Blvd., Box 567, Tustin, CA 92681.

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