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Sister Blanca: Heart and Soul of Eastside's Santa Marta Hospital

January 14, 1985|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

Outwardly, there is nothing remarkable about Santa Marta Hospital and Clinic in East Los Angeles. A two-story, yellow-brick building on a side street off Brooklyn Avenue, it looks modern and well-kept, newer perhaps than its 13 years. One step inside the lobby and Santa Marta's takes on an ambiance all its own. There is a homey quality here and a warmth that stands out.

The lobby and corridors look as clean, gleaming and efficient as hospitals are supposed to look, but, for example, the grizzled old man in a serape and sombrero who was sitting one morning watching whoever went by with the look of one settled in for a long wait, was right at home--orange plastic shell-chair notwithstanding. It is a place where staff go by, joking among themselves or greeting visitors and outpatients in Spanish or English, hugging and touching occasionally. It is low-keyed, warm and pleasant. And somewhat puzzling.

Five minutes with Sister Blanca Yabar, and everything starts to fall into place. The ambiance is no accident. How could a hospital she presides over be otherwise?

Administrator of Santa Marta from the opening of the present 110-bed acute care facility with a staff of 400 in 1972 through 1976, and president of the board of directors since 1982, Sister Blanca fits no stereotype of an executive, businesswoman, person of authority or, even, graduate of an assertiveness course. In fact, it is not easy to imagine her as the grammar school principal she once was.

Sent to Los Angeles Born in the Basque region of Spain, she grew up in Pamplona and came to this country in 1959 because her superiors sent her. Her soft-voiced, accented English is fluent, and she stumbles with it only when she is flustered or upset.

She is a tiny woman in her late 40s, wearing a blue cardigan over her modernized, street-length white habit of the Daughters of St. Joseph. Her graying hair edges her short white veil. When she talks about herself, she tends to turn her serious hazel eyes downward, to the pencil or paper clip she twists in her hands, and when she is teased she reddens and laughs.

Humility, modesty and sweetness are qualities that seem to characterize her. Executive headhunters are not on the prowl for these virtues. For that matter, they are qualities that have come in for a fair amount of ridicule and disparagement of late, especially when applied to women, most especially when applied to nuns. Sister Blanca manages to convey them, however, without the theatricality of the self-effacement. There is no mistaking her strength.

As president of the board and superior of the community of eight nuns who live in the convent behind the hospital, her responsibilities are a mix that run from generally seeing "that things run smoothly" to working with the newly formed foundation that is fund raising for the hospital's expansion and operation, to overseeing the pastoral care program that the nuns provide patients and their families, to "giving the discounts" for poor patients unable to pay their bills.

Serving the poor is uppermost in her talk about the hospital. It is why Santa Marta, at first a 10-bed maternity ward and clinic consisting of a cluster of frame cottages, was started in the 1920s in the first place. Lately, small independent hospitals have been given little hope for survival. Santa Marta's survival is even more precarious.

"A big problem for us is that the government is cutting down (on funds), and our hospital is greatly affected by this. Seventy percent of our patients are Medi-Cal or Medicare recipients. And some of them are not eligible for this. They are here without papers. They are very poor. So we have to do something," she said. "We have to, because we are committed to serving the poor."

No sooner had she said that than a family, a woman on crutches, her son and his little daughter, was ushered into her office to discuss their bill. Bustling around a bit with papers between her office and the reception room, she drew the story from the woman in give-and-take conversation that bore no resemblance to an interview. The woman, who is uninsured and not eligible for Medi-Cal, had come to the emergency room with a broken ankle and the bill was around $300--high, Sister Blanca told them, because the emergency room is more expensive than the clinic. Within minutes they left, after Sister Blanca had held the baby, having been given a 30% discount and having agreed to accept payment for the bill in three monthly installments.

"I have the sole authority for giving the discounts," she said, explaining that her method was not to ask for proof and documents, but to find other ways to ascertain people's status, especially word of mouth from pastors and others in the community, and ultimately "to go on conversations."

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