fbpx

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 hospital’s 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. “It’s 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 don’t 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 center’s 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 King’s 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. That’s
about six or seven people a day. Are we going to say that six lives aren’t important?
[Director of the county Department of Health Services] Thomas Garthwaite says
it won’t be a problem, but how can he be sure? It makes no sense. Seems to me
we’re 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. “That’s nothing,” says Ravis. “That’s
doable. It’s not necessary to close the unit.” Chronic understaffing at
King emerged as a major theme on Tuesday, especially in light of the county’s
decision in recent weeks to divert trauma patients away from King to other centers
because of alleged nursing shortages. Critics argue, though, that the county’s
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 county’s 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 isn’t 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 Sheriff’s 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 wouldn’t
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 don’t 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. That’s the morally responsible thing to do.”