THE MOVEMENT HAD BEEN GROWING for months but reached critical mass in the last several weeks when campaign paraphernalia started appearing citywide: T-shirts, caps and bumper stickers that read "Save King/Drew." On Tuesday when that movement converged in full force upon a public hearing held at Martin Luther King/Charles Drew Medical Magnet High School, across the street from the embattled King hospital, it was clear that the issue went far beyond the closure of the hospitals trauma unit, which the county board of supervisors support as a cost-cutting measure that will theoretically free up resources for other troubled departments at the hospital (the board will likely approve the closure this month). For many of the thousands who attended the marathon rally and legally mandated hearing, the issue was the very survival of poor, violence-plagued, chiefly black and Latino folk in a political atmosphere that has long been either punitive or indifferent. While the pending trauma unit closure was uppermost on protesters minds, King/Drew supporters were really stumping for something that has not happened in the 32 years King has been around which is the county taking full responsibility for making a hospital that it owns and operates the best that it can be in a community that needs quality health care more desperately now than it did when the hospital first opened. Even if the crowd gets its wish and the county relents on the trauma unit, King would hardly be saved.
"My concern is not to keep the trauma unit open just for the sake of keeping it open," says Tim Watkins, director of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, one of several community organizations that has been leading the fight against the closure. "Its keeping it open with the resources and support to make the whole hospital as successful as places like Cedars-Sinai or UCLA. And those places have made grave mistakes, too the cadaver scandal at UCLA, for one but they dont get closed down. Human intent is understood and the problem is dealt with. With us, it never seems like anything is done to solve the problem."
In the meantime, Watkins and others are hoping that a temporary restraining order filed last Friday on behalf of King supporters will stay the trauma centers execution. Mark Ravis of the Beverly Hills law firm Ravis & Martin says the restraining order cites violations of the Civil Rights Act and argues, among other things, that closing the trauma unit will result in immediate and unjustifiable harm to Kings clientele. "Our position is, if you close the trauma center, people will die right away," says Ravis, who is also a physician. "The trauma unit saw about 1,800 people last year. Thats about six or seven people a day. Are we going to say that six lives arent important? [Director of the county Department of Health Services] Thomas Garthwaite says it wont be a problem, but how can he be sure? It makes no sense. Seems to me were looking at the whole thing backwards."
Ravis added that the restraining order also contends that the trauma unit like the rest of King has a nursing shortage, but that the problem can be addressed relatively easily by adding two to three dozen more nurses at a cost of about $3.6 million. "Thats nothing," says Ravis. "Thats doable. Its not necessary to close the unit." Chronic understaffing at King emerged as a major theme on Tuesday, especially in light of the countys decision in recent weeks to divert trauma patients away from King to other centers because of alleged nursing shortages. Critics argue, though, that the countys desire to bolster its argument for opening a new trauma unit downtown at California Medical Center has as much to do with it as any nursing shortage at King. Whatever the countys motives, King supporters say inadequate staffing underlies many of the current problems at King and at its feeder medical school, Drew University, but the county has never addressed the problem because there simply isnt enough political will to do so. Supporters also believe that closing the trauma unit, a relatively small but elite department at King that has actually performed well, will lead to the closure or serious downsizing of the entire hospital. Neither outcome is acceptable, they say. "King/Drew has saved a lot of people, including my sister, and they saved her a couple of times," says Tavner Cook, a South L.A. native who traveled to the hearing with his 6-year-old daughter. When Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky asserted during the hearing that King was "a medical issue, not a political issue," the crowd booed in disbelief. "Wait until his child gets shot," muttered one man dressed in a suit and bow tie.
Despite the gravity of the event, the mood at times was almost festive. Though the throng was predominantly black, there was plenty of diversity not often seen in Watts/Willowbrook neighborhoods. Families turned out with children and old folk on a day of blue skies and summer-like weather. African dancers performed on an outdoor stage before an enormous flag waving the black-pride colors of red, black and green. Those who could not gain entrance to the auditorium at the Medical Magnet where the hearing was going on which was pretty much everybody stood before loudspeakers set up on the sidewalk to broadcast the proceedings inside, listening intently and responding as raucously as they might to a football game. The clearest indication that this was not exactly a party was the heavy law-enforcement presence, which included dozens of school-district police and Sheriffs deputies manning the entrance to the auditorium, and what appeared to be a couple of snipers positioned on the school rooftop. The crowd was miffed but undeterred from its mission of voicing support for the trauma unit, perhaps for the last time. "In spite of being underfunded, this place performs miracles every day," says Sean Jones-Quaidoo, a fourth-year medical student at Drew who did a rotation in the trauma unit. "My heart is in serving the underserved. This kind of education is something I want to preserve."
Perhaps the most compelling plea came from someone you wouldnt readily expect to end up at King, let alone support it. Randy Smith is a white resident of Palms who is also poor and unemployed; he says the hospital has saved his life. "Whatever reports of incompetence and negligence are out there, they dont conform to my experience," says Smith, who is thin and soft-spoken. "The doctors and nurses are very caring. If the delays and problems with care are due to lack of staffing or a lack of funds, the correct response is to increase them. Thats the morally responsible thing to do."