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But others say striving for excellence is the only course of action possible, particularly given the acute needs of King/Drew’s clientele. “We can’t be as indigent as the population we serve, of course,” says Drew vice president Walter Strong. “Our mission requires the playing field to be leveled, period. We needthat margin of excellence.”
The believers within King/Drew — administration, staff, residents — and also those outside of it would like nothing more than for their hospital to be exemplary. They would like it to be more than a tourniquet for the blood that flows daily in the black male homicide wars, which spiked (again) last year and got King/Drew back in the papers as ground zero for yet another crisis. This is the part of community medicine that neither veteran nor aspiring doctors quite bargained for, or at least they hoped it would be minimal at this point instead of epidemic. But in 31 years, reality has bitten at every turn.
Because of that, the Dream is solvent and less ethereal. “The hippie in me still believes in it,” says the former staffer. “If they — the county, the community, David Satcher, Burke, whoever — come in from all sides and work together, it can be done. It can happen.” The Satcher committee report, released on Christmas Eve, was measured but not nearly as optimistic, condemning Drew University as so many great intentions gone awry. It recommended a dramatic overhaul of leadership, beginning with the ouster of Francis, called for more UCLA involvement, and criticized board members and others at Drew who have simply stayed too long. Satcher perhaps summed things up best in concluding in his report that the university has “both served the community and failed it.”
But longtime activist John Jackson agrees with the former staffer that a make-over can be done, though not how. Jackson is a youngish street-level proponent of many progressive causes and regards King/Drew as one of them. “How do you shift from the current culture of King/Drew to one of accountability without causing shock and fear?” he muses. “We have great health-care advocates in town, we have well-meaning people who’ve been stretched. But we don’t have the mechanism to hold political officials accountable.”
Maybe that’ll change. Burke, the supervisor who hates making waves and who happens to be up for re-election this year, says that when it comes to King/Drew, “I have to weigh my responsibility against my popularity. If this hospital goes down, Iwill really go down. If people are angry with me, I have to take it. I’m prepared to take it. I’m not prepared to take the hospital being shut down. It’s not possible.” It is one of the most dire, but also among the most reassuring, statements Burke has ever made as an elected official.
But such courage may be yet another thing at King/Drew that comes too little, too late: This week, before the Board of Supervisors, Garthwaite submitted recommendations for improving King/Drew that included shutting down more residency programs, starting with neo-natology — those considered non-essential or too elaborate for the hospital to support — and turning over management of the programs left to more established local universities like USC or UCLA. To those who view any diminishment of King or Drew as a step backward and an erosion of the Dream, this is very bad news indeed.
Meanwhile, Mervyn Dymally has written a new bill, ACR 139, authorizing a joint-management team for King/Drew made up of officials from Drew, the University of California and L.A. County. Jackson suggests cultivating new, better, more enlightened community involvement to help King/Drew turn back the waterloo and move into the future. “We don’t validate emerging voices, and we need to,” he says. “There’s the value of simply having black doctors here and having kids see that. When they come visit, they walk out not wanting to be a Malcolm X or a Sojourner Truth, but a health professional.”
One King/Drew veteran, by far the most hardened and least hopeful of everyone I talked to, describes how he still sees the glass of opportunity as half full. To him, the crisis gathering now is but a dark underside of the Dream that has become a familiar part of its cycle of having and not having, of contentment, complacency and loss. “We’ve been written off so many times over the last 25 years, this feels like nothing,” he says with a shrug. “When I look around and see that we did all this with no money, I feel pretty good about that.”