No Second Act?

Mervyn Dymally sounds crushed. This is not characteristic of the Compton-area assemblyman, a veteran of electoral politics and various racial causes known for his hardy optimism and upbeat demeanor that often borders on twinkly. But when talking about last week’s nearly uniform decision by the county board of supervisors to close the trauma center at King/Drew hospital, Dymally has no encouraging spin on the vote, the anticlimax to months of grassroots protests that culminated in a huge, historic rally and public hearing two weeks ago at King/Drew Medical Magnet High School. "I think we have lost that battle," says Dymally from Sacramento. "I’m very discouraged by the blatant display of arrogance by the board to do what they did. You had throngs of people opposing the closure, plus almost every black and Latino elected representative in the area, plus many others. But all the pleas were ignored. The people’s will was thwarted. None of it mattered."

Like so many other King/Drew supporters, Dymally believes that closing the trauma unit will endanger patients and eventually destabilize the hospital — the reverse of what the county says the closure is intended to do. Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes King/Drew and who somewhat curiously abstained from the vote, is hoping the closure is temporary and has passed a recommendation that the unit stay on track to reopen in the next year or so. But her hopeful view is clearly in the minority among supporters, who are less sanguine about King/Drew’s fate. "The county is not well advised to ignore the voice of the community," says Tim Watkins, director of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee and a key figure of the coalition of activists and citizens known as Save King Drew. "My question is, how is more of the same leadership going to fix the problem? That’s the real travesty here."

Watkins says that Save King Drew will continue to meet regularly — there’s a meeting scheduled Saturday — to strategize not only about the trauma unit, but about other public-policy challenges facing Watts/Willowbrook, Los Angeles County’s poorest and neediest enclave. "Once again, it’s an aggregate of bad policy applying downward pressure," says Watkins. "The closure of the trauma unit seemed imminent, which is why we gathered our voices and fought as hard as we could."

Congresswoman Maxine Waters was a big part of that fight, though it’s unclear what role she will play from this point on. A spokesperson from her office, April Lawrence, says that depends entirely on what direction the coalition wants to take. The first step is to vet what the vote, and Burke’s recommendation, means. Whatever happens, adds Lawrence, "Congresswoman Waters is clearly committed to making sure that the community has quality health care."

Meanwhile, the legal challenges to the closure continue. Marc Ravis of the law firm Ravis & Martin, representing Friends of King Drew, is in court this week seeking a temporary restraining order against the closure, which is slated to happen in the next three months. When the firm first sought the order last month, the judge denied it, though mostly on the technical grounds that the vote had not yet happened and the order could have been superfluous. Now that the vote has gone against the trauma unit, Ravis is actually optimistic that the second application for the order will be granted. He adds that county health director Thomas Garthwaite has said that the new county trauma unit slated to open at California Hospital Medical Center, which will effectively replace King/Drew’s, will not come on line for at least seven months. "That’s too long," says Ravis. "What’s to be done in the meantime? We have a tactical advantage here." Ravis also has questions about the ability of California Hospital, which is owned by hospital chain Catholic Healthcare West, to run a trauma center; the chain opened one in 1977 but could not sustain it.

Yet even if the restraining order is granted, the problems of King/Drew, and the uphill battle for its survival, remain. "We have no radiology, no neonatalogy, no general surgery," says Dymally, ticking off the King/Drew residency programs that medical accreditation groups have either put on probation or are phasing out. "Now no trauma unit. We have nothing left." Dymally says he will focus his energies now on preserving Drew University, the medical school across the street from the hospital that he helped found in the 1980s through hard-fought state legislation and a compact with UCLA’s medical school. Dymally says Drew’s troubles are more manageable because "its problem is not health, it’s money."

For Tim Watkins and others working and living in the Watts/Willowbrook community, compartmentalizing the problems — and the solutions — is not an option. Watkins admits he worries about the fallout of the vote, about the energy of dissent that has peaked, hit a wall and has nowhere to go — at least for the moment. "I’m not suggesting there’ll be a riot or anything," says Watkins. "But when you look across the spectrum you see poor people in a poor place, with corrupt police, a fear of being poisoned by the toxic air, fear of their neighbors on top of everything else. It’s the sense of disposability and dispensability of the population that’s ongoing and that really irks me. This is just an ugly situation that only needs a few more elements to become potentially combustible."

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