By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Francis responds to the criticism, and particularly the role of community at Drew, delicately. Like other high-ranking people at King/Drew who have come and gone — perhaps too many — he neither fully accepts nor denies culpability. His position on Fleming is that he only iterated the findings of the accrediting body, nothing more. As to the community, “There’s always been that tension between them and the institution, but there’s no particular culprit here,” he says. “Certainly the community is entitled to express its opinion about what goes on. It’s evolved into a kind of operational watchdog, though perhaps not in concert with the leadership of the university.” He pauses. “Its intentions are good.”
It almost goes without saying, though it generally goes unwritten, that King/Drew has had successes. The hospital’s emergency room has saved many a life and limb threatened by bullet wounds, drug overdoses, heart failure and other conditions that have grown all too common in neighborhoods with too much street violence, too few jobs and too little preventive health care. (King/Drew actually trained Vietnam medics in its earliest days, though no one anticipated its one day treating urban war victims in greater numbers than the medics did on the front in 1974. It does now, and then some.) Defenders of the hospital like to cite the story of Alfredo Perez, a young South L.A. teacher struck in the head by a bullet in 1996 and then saved in dramatic fashion by King/Drew surgeons, as an example of the quality care and swift response to community needs the hospital stands for.
But always there were tragedies of error that, unfairly or no, sucked up all the attention and consigned King/Drew to a permanent probation in the mind of the public, including the public it served. Among the many high-profile mistakes were the patient who died of a swelled brain in the late 1980s because the neurosurgery department was understaffed; Sheriff’s Deputy Nelson Yamamoto, who died in 1992 from multiple gunshot wounds after lingering for two days; Torin Comeaux, who died in 1997 at King/Drew because his vascular surgery was too long delayed; a patient who died in 1998 after mistaking a toxic solution of formaldehyde left at her bedside for drinking water; and three women who died last year due to the malfunction of a new patient-monitoring device and, it was discovered later, to human error that had gone unreported. These mistakes are unjustifiable on their face; arguing institutional neglect, however true, in defense of King/Drew’s transgressions sounds like something less than a bad excuse.
For 30 years, management and internal problems at King/Drew have developed faster than the scope and quality of its services, threatening to eclipse the whole enterprise. Those problems are considerable. Racial tensions that were originally black and white — the community against county officials and other “outsiders” — have expanded over years of demographic change in the Watts/Willowbrook/ Compton triangle to black and Latino; today, Latinos are nearly 60 percent of King’s patient population. Then there are the other doctors and residents of color, many of them foreign-born — Thai, Indian — attracted to King/Drew in part because its mission of racial equity and social justice via medicine resonated with experiences and expectations of their own. ‰
But often the new ambitions of the global South ran up against ancient black frustrations rooted in the American South, resulting in workplace harassment perpetrated by some black doctors, which their non-black victims then fought publicly in county hearings and lawsuits. All this made for irresistible headlines: New black racism was tearing King/Drew apart and making a mockery of the Dream. When the dust settled — more or less — the stakes of improving life at King/Drew were as high as they had been before. But no one seemed to have a clearer idea of what to do or a will strong enough to do it.
And so the problem, says state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) with a big sigh, is always not so much what’s happened at King/Drew but what hasn’t. The real story here is a tedious one of negative space and neglect that is by definition invisible — not a story so much as a condition. It’s not something that ever grabbed media attention or galvanized public interest, not even in the ’70s afterglow of the civil rights movement, except when things blew up or went sideways.
Like other black politicians of his generation, Dymally is familiar with this dynamic. He is an assemblyman representing the Compton area and King/Drew turf, a position that caps a lengthy political career distinguished early on by a bill he authored in the late ’70s creating Charles Drew University as a full medical school offering undergraduate degrees and, later, the College of Allied Health. Because the undergraduate program couldn’t exist on its own, Dymally forged a partnership with the University of California, under an agreement in which students would spend their first two years at UCLA, the second two at Drew, then graduate with degrees issued by UC but jointly conferred by both institutions. It was not quite a shotgun wedding, but neither was it ever ideal.
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