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Escaping With His Life 

MLK-Harbor’s got a new name, the nightmare sounds the same

Wednesday, May 23 2007
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Last week, news broke that on May 8, a 43-year-old woman was left writhing in pain on the emergency-room lobby floor of Martin Luther King Jr.–Harbor hospital and, despite pleas by her boyfriend, did not get treatment. The woman died, but MLK-Harbor officials insist the incident was an isolated mistake.

Juan Ponce’s story suggests otherwise.

Ponce is a man who tries not to be bothered by the small things. As a truck driver for Lemad Freight, a company that moves asphalt for city road work, he works long hours but likes his job. It has paid the bills for his family of six, which includes his wife, Sostenes, and four kids, ranging from Yesenia, a ninth-grader, to a baby who still clings marsupial-like to Sostenes.

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Almost a statistic: Juan Ponce with mother-in-law Claudia Guzman, wife Sostenes,daughter Giselle and baby Alexander. Not pictured: Yesenia, the teen who acted to save her dad’s life.  (Photo by Gregory Bojorquez)Occasionally, work is sparse. But last year he’d saved enough to buy his own truck. Overall, life was good, says Ponce. So in December, when he began getting intermittent headaches, he ignored them. The headaches ramped up in January, after the company had a seasonal slowdown, but he dismissed the pain as a byproduct of the fiscal stress he felt when not working.

“I mostly just took Tylenol” he says. “And I thought it would get better.”

When the pain got worse, Ponce’s doctor blamed high cholesterol. “He told me I needed to eat a little different.” He followed the doctor’s instructions, but by mid-February the pain was so bad he was afraid to drive and took a week off work. Then, reluctantly, a second week.

Finally, in late February, Ponce understood he was in trouble. Barely able to walk, he asked his brother to drive him to the nearest emergency room — Martin Luther King Jr.–Harbor Hospital, a sprawling facility on South Wilmington Boulevard south of the 105 freeway.

As most Los Angeles residents know, the hospital formerly known as King/Drew Medical Center — recently renamed Martin Luther King Jr.–Harbor — has what might be charitably called a troubled history.

Opened in 1972 after the Watts riots, King-Drew was intended as a beacon of competence and modernity. Instead, long before the Los Angeles Times published its devastating 2004 investigative series on the place, King-Drew was known as “Killer King,” one of the worst hospitals in America.

But, for all its scandals, it remained crucial to the county health care system — and especially to South Los Angeles. For the past several years, the five-member, elected Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has been downscaling the facility in an effort to keep it functioning.

Yet the troubles have continued. Last September, “MLK” failed a federal inspection that nearly cost it $200 million in federal funding and its accreditation. County health chief Dr. Bruce Chernof managed to strike an emergency deal with the feds, promising to slash 300 beds to 48, and to place MLK under control of the more successful county hospital, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, near Torrance.

Now the pressure is on to further retool MLK in order to pass a last-chance inspection in July.

Against that backdrop, Ponce and his brother arrived at MLK’s emergency room sometime after 10 a.m. on Wednesday, February 28. After explaining Ponce’s symptoms to a triage nurse, the men waited about three hours before he was ushered into an examining room where, after a quick assessment, a doctor ordered an MRI and a CT scan to find out what was going on in Ponce’s head.

When the tests came back, two physicians met with Ponce and told him he needed surgery — but that the drastically staff-reduced MLK no longer performed the procedure, so he would be transferred as soon as possible. Whether it was because of the language barrier (Ponce is Spanish-speaking) or his woozy condition, Ponce at first didn’t realize how bad the news was — that he had a brain tumor. Nor did he understand that while the tumor was serious, it was actually the least of his immediate problems.

The imaging showed Ponce was suffering from obstructive hydrocephalus — caused by the tumor blocking the circulation of cerebral-spinal fluid through his brain, like a landslide blocking a river. The blockage produced a buildup of fluid in his cranial cavity — a situation that can damage enough brain cells to cause irreversible blindness, loss of cognitive functioning, even death.

If caught early, obstructive hydrocephalus is treatable. But, with pressure on the brain, timing is everything. “The problem with the brain is that it’s resting in an enclosed space,” says Dr. Brian Johnston, the emergency department medical director for White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights, a 30-year ER veteran. “The liquid has nowhere to go. So the pressure continues to build unless it’s relieved. Can it be fatal? Yes, of course it can be fatal.”

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