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Taking a moment from their busy schedule, Marcia and Oscar Sablan call their granddaughter to wish her a happy birthday. The Sablan's opened the Sablan Medical Clinic in Firebaugh 30 years ago.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times

Newborn Julian Rodriguez is brought in by her mother for a check-up to the Sablan clinic. The clinic serves a variety of patients, young and old.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times

Oscar Sablan shares a light moment with longtime patient Carolyn Selzer after going over x-ray results.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times

Angelica Avalos and her two daughters, Angelica, 3, and Valerie, 1, wait to be seen at the Sablan Medical Clinic.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times

Locals residents gather to drink coffee and eat donuts in the rural community of Firebaugh.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times

Elvira Silva walks with friends along a river path in Firebaugh after receiving food at a monthly food bank giveaway. Firebaugh is a rural farming community with a population of about 7,000 people.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times

Firebaugh is a rural farming community with a population of about 7,000 people. Unemployment is nearly 40%.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times

Oscar Sablan makes arrangements for patients who need to see specialists.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times

Complaining about stomach pains, Michael Murillo, 57, came into the clinic early in the day seeking relief.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times

In towns like Firebaugh, traveling to a hospital means a long drive and doctors and pharmacists are in short supply. The nearest hospital is 20 miles away and the closest trauma center is nearly 40.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times

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By Anna Gorman

FIREBAUGH, Calif. — On a morning in early January, the air is cold and Firebaugh’s main street is nearly empty. But the Sablan Medical Clinic is quickly filling up with people eager to see the physicians they affectionately call Dr. Marcia and Dr. Oscar.

Lela Burkhart, whose family owns a farm in this remote San Joaquin Valley town surrounded by fields of pistachios and almonds, is one of the first patients of the day.

Burkhart, 86, recently had heart surgery, and this morning she’s feeling tired and short of breath. Oscar Sablan tells her that the lab tests show she is dangerously anemic.

“You are bleeding inside, even though you cannot see it,” he tells her.

“Do I need to go to the hospital?” she asks.

Sablan nods. “It’s a little too low for us to wait,” he says, patting her on the back.

More than 30 years ago, Oscar and his wife, Marcia, made a plan: work in a rural area for three years and walk away without any medical school debt. So they moved from tropical Hawaii to dusty Firebaugh and started a practice in a trailer on the corner of O and 9th streets. They didn’t intend to stay.

They are still here, the only full-time doctors in town, treating many of the same families as when they arrived. The couple raised four children in Firebaugh and grew so committed to the town that she served as mayor and he as school board president.

“This became our home,” Oscar Sablan says. “I still can’t believe it.”

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