By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
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By Jill Stewart
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Since MLK no longer had the personnel necessary, the plan was to transfer Ponce to a better-equipped hospital as soon as possible.
But it never happened.
Initially, the doctor prescribed morphine for the pain, and instructed Ponce to not eat or drink anything — since surgery elsewhere was all but imminent. Yet the day stretched into night, and he was still waiting when an MLK nurse finally called Sostenes at home to tell her to retrieve her husband’s things because he would be transferred for surgery “soon.”
The nurse also explained about the brain tumor and, for the first time, Ponce’s family understood that his life might be in danger.
A shy woman who speaks little English, Sostenes tried to get information from nurses. “They just told me they’d do the operation just as soon as there was room at another hospital,” she says. “They were the professionals, so I thought they must know what they were doing.”
But, as the hours wore on, her husband’s symptoms worsened — her fears along with them. By Thursday afternoon, Ponce was too ill to walk on his own to the bathroom, and began vomiting intermittently — although without food and little water, it was mostly dry heaves. Now truly frantic, Ponce and his wife pleaded with the nurses for news of the promised transfer and surgery.
“We kept asking and asking,” he says. “But they just told us we had to wait.”
By day three, Friday, Ponce’s symptoms had escalated — yet still no transfer was in sight. In a panic, Ponce told his wife that one side of his face was going numb and he was seeing an alarming array of lights and “feathers” in his visual field.
According to experts, with obstructive hydrocephalus, the optic nerve is the first thing often at risk of permanent damage. So, the new disturbances in Ponce’s vision should have been a huge red flag for MLK’s medical staff.
Both husband and wife say they informed hospital personnel of the escalating symptoms, but that the staff failed to act. Ponce was still being given morphine for his extreme pain, and during a lucid moment when the pain temporarily lessened, Ponce recognized one of his doctors in the hall — and pleaded with him to check on his case.
“He said he’d find out,” says Ponce. “But he never came back.”
They were reluctant to push too hard, says Sostenes, “because we didn’t want to make the hospital people mad. But we were getting really scared.” “‘Be patient,’” she says they were told. “‘You’ll just have to wait. This is the process.’”
In the end, it was Yesenia, Ponce’s smart, outgoing ninth-grade daughter, who probably saved her father.
She’d been taking care of the younger kids while her mom was at the hospital, “so I didn’t see him until Thursday night,” Yesenia says. She was startled by her dad’s deterioration. “He was pale and, like — yellow. And he wasn’t like his normal self. You could tell it was bad.”
On Friday morning, the girl confided her fears to her homeroom teacher at Animo Ralph Bunche Charter High School, who suggested that the girl talk to Abby Soto, the school’s community outreach coordinator. Upon hearing the story, Soto called Sostenes late that night, and agreed to go with her to the hospital.
Soto is a community organizer, and a not-inconsiderable force. On Saturday morning, she drove Sostenes to MLK, determined to get Ponce help. But, working her way up the line to a hospital supervisor, she had no better luck than Sostenes.
Finally, Soto asked a male nurse to check the computer to make sure Ponce, now in his fourth day, was still in the system. Ponce was. “The nurse told us, ‘All you can do is wait,’ but you could see he wasn’t happy about it,” Soto says. “Finally he said, ‘Look, if it was my family member, I’d get him out of here and take him where they can treat him.’”
Soto says the nurse suggested MLK’s sister hospital, Harbor-UCLA.
Soto, Sostenes and Ponce’s brother loaded him into his brother’s car. Before leaving, Abby tried to pry loose Ponce’s MRI and CT scans from hospital officials — who had not okayed Ponce’s departure. “But they wouldn’t give them to us,” says Soto, “because they said, ‘Then Harbor will think we sent him.’”
Ponce scribbled his name on a form indicating he was leaving the hospital against medical advice. On the boilerplate document (provided to the Weekly), in the space designated for “remarks,” someone had printed: “With the diagnosis of unstable obstructive hydrocephalus, serious adverse events could occur, including death.” The document was signed: “Dr. Maywether” at 11:45 a.m. on March 3.
When the family arrived around 20 minutes later at Harbor-UCLA, the triage nurse at first didn’t want to accept him, says Yesenia, “because he’d refused treatment at Martin Luther King.” But Soto mentioned terms like “life threatening,” “responsibility” and “lawsuit,” and the nurse relented.
After that, things moved quickly. The triage nurse slapped a bright, red/orange “RUSH” sticker on Ponce’s shirt. More imaging tests were ordered. When a neurosurgeon read the tests, and then examined Ponce, what he saw distressed him, Soto says.