First a patient, now a doctor: A life immersed in Venice Family Clinic
Long before she became a doctor, before she ever dreamed of going to medical school, Margarita Loeza, MD, was a patient at Venice Family Clinic.
Back then, in the mid-‘70s, the clinic operated out of a dental office, with volunteers providing free medical services after hours, once the dentist closed up shop for the day.
“My mom and dad were working on the Westside, and they didn’t have medical insurance,” Dr. Loeza recalls. “I think my mom was cleaning houses at the time and my dad was a gardener. And I had multiple medical problems from the beginning” from congenital hip dysplasia.
The clinic is independently run and has its own board of directors, but from its start, it has operated in partnership with the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, with medical residents regularly training there.
Venice Family Clinic has expanded exponentially since its early days, going from one shared building offering basic medical care to 14 locations on the Westside, providing comprehensive health services to 28,000 patients. Those services include mental health and substance use treatment, dental care, vision screenings, health education, health-insurance enrollment, meals for patients in need and top-of-the-line medical care, administered by staff physicians and volunteers from surrounding hospital systems, including UCLA Health.
Venice Family Clinic is celebrating its 50th birthday in 2020 with a star-studded virtual celebration on Sunday, Oct. 11 – Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg are among those scheduled to participate – followed by a Week of Action to encourage even more community involvement.
“We try to be really all-encompassing in what we’re able to do within what I would call a very broad type of primary care,” says Executive Director and CEO Elizabeth Benson Forer, MSW, MPH. “The most important thing is we provide care in which we try to remove all the obstacles of access.”
That means that those who can’t afford to pay for services are treated at no cost. Patients who may qualify for health coverage — as many do under the Affordable Care Act — receive help securing those benefits. The clinic serves about 4,500 patients who are homeless.
When Dr. Loeza came to Venice Family Clinic as a child, patients were handed deli-style number tickets to indicate their place in line. Only about 30 were seen each night.
“I remember people saving numbers for my mom. They knew my mom,” says Dr. Loeza, who underwent multiple surgeries for her dislocated hip as a child. “I also remember my mom translating for people. She never went to school, but she figured out how to speak English.”
These days, many of Venice Family Clinic’s physicians and staff members speak Spanish fluently — Dr. Loeza among them. “I wish I spoke a third language,” she says.
Similar to her mom, as a pre-teen Dr. Loeza found herself translating for fellow patients while she was being treated at a local orthopedic hospital. She shared a room with three other Spanish-speaking girls and would communicate their concerns to the doctors making rounds.
“I was in everybody’s business,” she says. “Being the oldest of five, I was naturally bossy.”
It was then, as a seventh-grader recovering from yet another hip surgery, that she decided on her future career. But her parents remember her declaring her intentions to become a doctor even earlier – when she was still in elementary school, not long after her first visit to Venice Family Clinic.
Though Dr. Loeza missed many school days due to surgeries and recoveries, she buckled down on her studies with new determination once she knew where she was headed.
“I was just doing OK in school. I mean, no one was really excited about me being some genius,” Dr. Loeza says. “All I knew about being a doctor was you had to have good grades. I was trying to get into college because I knew that’s what I had to do to go to med school.”
Dr. Loeza was the first in her family to pursue higher education. A first-generation American born to Mexican immigrants, she now serves as a mentor to future medical students as a member of the admissions committee for UCLA’s medical school.
After completing her medical training, Dr. Loeza worked in private practice and returned to Venice Family Clinic as a volunteer.
“I thought they didn’t pay the doctors at the clinic, and I had massive school debt,” she says. “So I thought, ‘Well, I can’t afford to work there because I can’t afford to work for free.’”
Instead, she spent Saturdays at the clinic assisting anyone who needed her help. When a permanent position opened there, colleagues urged her to apply. Dr. Loeza was reticent, though, because she was seven months pregnant at the time.
Forer offered her the job anyway, telling her, “You are exactly who we want.”
“I said, ‘You’ve been here since you were eight or nine years old. You’re not going anywhere,” the executive director recalls.
That was in 2001. Dr. Loeza has been with Venice Family Clinic ever since.
“She’s been a marvelous leader for us,” Forer says. She points to Dr. Loeza’s active role in the clinic’s diabetes program, her spearheading of outreach services at Santa Monica High School’s teen clinic and her implementation of a new electronic health records system, which led to her being named the clinic’s chief medical information officer.
Dr. Loeza also continues to volunteer her services to those in need, traveling to Mexico regularly to donate time at an orphanage and providing medical care to immigrants and refugees at the border.
She also readily shares her story with aspiring doctors who are the first in their families to blaze such a trail.
“She’s helped so many young people realize their dreams and help them through those rough spots in medical school and residency training,” Forer says. “She’s made them feel comfortable and helped them keep going, and the result is we have many wonderful Latinx and Black physicians because of Dr. Loeza and her support.”
For Dr. Loeza, coming back to Venice Family Clinic “just seemed natural.”
“I remember what it’s like to be poor,” she says. “I remember what it was like to have my mom be worried about getting a doctor’s appointment or not being able to afford medical care. That feeling never goes away.”
Returning as a physician to the clinic that cared for her family when she was growing up doesn’t feel like anything “out of the ordinary or great” to Dr. Loeza.
“I just thought, ‘I’m going back to the community where I came from,’” she says. “I never thought about it any other way than that. It was just going back home.”