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L.A.'s French Hospital Grew From Settlers' Hiring of a Doctor

September 20, 1985|GARY LIBMAN

Los Angeles in 1860 was already a city of substantial brick buildings where cultured circles held "frequent card parties, balls, picnics, serenades, 'sociables' and suppers," according to a recent historical study.

But the dusty pueblo was also "a center of crime, violence and vigilante action. Each week," according to another study, "the Star (newspaper) reported new killings and shooting sprees."

Harsh rains could cause rivers to overflow "with great destruction of property," and smallpox epidemics could take "an appalling toll of life on the ranchos, as well as in the towns."

Afraid for their safety and health, a group of French settlers almost lost to history took two barely remembered steps to protect themselves.

Banding together in a benevolent society, they requested a unit of the French Foreign Legion to defend them against violence. The unit came and, according to society records, stayed many years.

The merchants, traders and ranchers who formed the Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance Mutuelle de Los Angeles also hired a doctor.

In an early version of an HMO (health maintenance organization), they decided that society members could obtain medical treatment for $1 a month plus 50 cents for each office visit.

In an era when "vendors of patent medicines advertised extensively in the Los Angeles newspapers and guaranteed a cure for every disease known to suffering humanity," society members decided within a year that non-Frenchmen could also see the doctor.

The doctor worked in an office in a home on Hill Street in Chinatown next to what had been Plaza de Los Toros, the local bullfight arena.

By 1865, Benevolent Society members had raised enough money to buy four lots across the street from the doctor's office, and in 1869 builders laid the cornerstone for the permanent French Hospital at College and Hill streets.

The hospital, near the intersection of the Pasadena and Hollywood freeways, is one of the oldest continuously operating hospitals on one site in Los Angeles.

Only St. Vincent Medical Center, formed in 1856, according to one historical source, is older.

On Sunday from noon to 2 p.m., French Hospital will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a party including a six-foot birthday cake, a presentation by Mayor Tom Bradley, pinata games and Chinese lions.

Within months of the celebration, it will launch a $30-million fund drive for construction.

Sitting beneath the rim of the Dodger Stadium parking lot and across the street from Castelar Street School, where the roar of children playing basketball drowns out the sound of heavy neighborhood traffic, the Chinatown facility employs a staff that speaks 25 languages and 10 dialects.

The hospital's admission booklets are printed in four languages--English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, while patient menus are available in all but Vietnamese, to satisfy a diverse patient population from Chinatown and surrounding areas.

On a recent afternoon at the 155-bed, acute-care hospital, nurses from Soviet Union and Yugoslavia worked with doctors from Panama and Thailand. Forty percent of the hospital's doctors grew up in Asian Pacific nations, and 16% speak Spanish.

Dr. Pedro Domingo-Foraste, chief of staff at the hospital, is one of the latter. Born in Barcelona, Spain, he is a third-generation physician and his daughters Dianne, 28, and Desiree, 26, are also doctors.

The cooperation among the ethnically diverse staff and patient population at French Hospital pleases Pedro Domingo-Foraste, who lived through what he calls "a terrible civil war that I will never forget (the Spanish Civil War)" before migrating to the United States in 1953.

He said the successful meeting of cultures "is the most important thing about French Hospital."

The meeting of those cultures will be reflected in the anniversary celebration Sunday when hospital tours will be given in English, Spanish and Chinese, and fortune cookies with messages in four languages will be available.

Times archivist Carolyn Strickler contributed to this story.

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