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
Garthwaite says he’s personally “tried to go and talk to people and assure them we’re not trying to take away your hospital, we’re trying to save it. There are people on the board who want change. But there is push back in a lot of other directions from others.”
Dymally says that King/Drew has no friends in Sacramento, a situation he is trying to change in part by enlisting the aid of the sizable Latino caucus. “Look, there are six of us now and 36 of them,” he says. “What are we going to do?”
At a recent private meeting of local legislators, concerned community members and King/Drew staff members — a meeting that had Nate Holden pounding his fist on the table and demanding that blacks “speak out about the truth” and “fight for our rights” — a King/Drew resident told a nightmarish story of a nurse in the psychiatric ward, a ward staffed chiefly by women, who was attacked by a disturbed male patient. The nurse pushed what’s called a “panic button” — an alarm meant to immediately summon security at such moments — only to find, inexplicably, that it had been disconnected. Fortunately, the nurse’s calls for help were answered by other staffers in the vicinity, but it was only after that brush with disaster — a year and a half after —that the county responded and the button was repaired. Such is the cautionary metaphor of small things spiraling out of control and too little, too late — one of many metaphors that are too often reality at King/Drew.
There exists an old cliché within the race that generally turns out to be true: Something or someone black has to be three times as good to get over, and sometimes even that’s not good enough. But in this more racially complex, post–affirmative action age, people don’t scrutinize the performance of black institutions so much as they simply ignore them until it’s too late. In the early ’90s, the state medical board was accused of minimizing its investigations of medical negligence at the hospital infamously nicknamed “Killer King” not just for its reputation for incompetent medical care, but for the violent environs in which it was located. But medical-education officials have only lately ‰ really dropped the hammer on Drew University; authorities nowhere to be seen before suddenly turn unforgiving, repeating a pattern of neglect and punishment as old as slavery, waiting until matters have slipped into an unacceptable state before hitting the panic button. Blacks have perhaps exacerbated the problem by elevating King/Drew as a symbol of the Dream, which means it’s an equally large symbol of black dysfunction when things go wrong. The official black reaction to all this has been a kind of paralysis and de facto denial. A recent headline in the L.A. Sentinel, the local black newspaper, heralded “Progress Cited at Drew University,” which sounds encouraging until you get to the second paragraph, where it says that King/Drew was issued its second unfavorable rating by the accrediting council. The headline was not untrue, but it was a hell of a spin. I understand black people kind of need that spin in order to continue investing in the Dream, which at the Sentineland elsewhere is getting tougher to do because so much news about black people is so disheartening these days. Of course, if we can’t tell the story truthfully to ourselves, we can hardly expect other people to, but many black people, including me, are often not quite sure enough of that story to know the truth.
A former county employee who worked closely with King/Drew told me she had the occasion to be a patient there once in the ER, and was so appalled by conditions — dirty gurney, three-day wait — that she went to Big County, where she claims to have received expert care. A couple at a recent dinner party I attended argued heatedly that the real problem is that King/Drew has been suffocating under the weight of all the negative stories; the wife, who works at Cedars-Sinai, said that all hospitals make grievous mistakes and all hospitals witness, if not hasten, patient deaths. It’s just a matter of who is the most convenient target, and who makes the headlines most often. Longtime staffers say that the infamous moniker “Killer King” was always something of a setup — a name coined by local law enforcement before the hospital even opened its doors. Talk about prophecy.
Whatever the truth, the reality is that King/Drew must first tackle the issue of normalization, of just getting to the point of being a hospital notprimarily known for missteps. Then there’s the issue of excellence. One is a natural outgrowth of the other, but in the wayward effort to enlarge King/Drew, it seems as if normalization and excellence have gotten stuck in a single bottleneck and neither can squeeze through past the other. Dr. Ernie Smith, a pediatric cardiologist who’s been around King/Drew more than 20 years, says we’ve got the equation all wrong. “We demand a criterion for excellence when there never was any,” Smith huffed before an audience at a public hearing held by Satcher’s force at King/Drew last fall. “This place came out of crisis. People had to die in order to get this hospital in the first place. Excellence was never part of the discussion.” The discussion of how to become the best, Smith continued, is worthy but still largely academic. “The people paying the price for ‘excellence’ are not the surgeons here, but those in the streets pushing the carts,” he said. “The people we serve. They have nothing to do with all the stuff going on in the medical school.”
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