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Diabetes Agency Plan Stirs Protest : East L.A. Office Closure Would Hurt Latinos, Some Say

February 19, 1987|GARY LIBMAN

Ramona Saavedra's diabetes cramps her legs, numbs her toes and makes her fingertips tingle. During walks she often stops, leans on a lamppost for support and bends her leg to restore her circulation.

The lifetime East Los Angeles resident, 60, sometimes stops to repair her circulation on walks to the East Los Angeles office of the American Diabetes Assn. two blocks from home.

The three-room office, in a single-story building at 5441 E. Beverly Blvd., provides bilingual referrals and medical information to about 50 callers a day. The office also mails 1,000 flyers a month and puts on a monthly lecture for diabetics while arranging seminars twice a year for doctors and nurses on diabetes research.

"I have learned more about diabetes in the four times I have been here than I have learned anyplace else in the 23 years I have had the disease," Saavedra said at the office recently. "I have been to a lot of other hospitals, and they do not sit down and show you like these doctors do. They are always in such a hurry."

Now Saavedra worries about her new-found resource. The Los Angeles County chapter of the association has moved its field representative from the East Los Angeles office to the county office on Wilshire Boulevard. It is leaning toward closing the East Los Angeles office and holding lectures and consultations for residents in other East Los Angeles area buildings.

Saavedra lives alone and has no car. "I don't know how I would get to the other places," she said. ". . . And I have to know about diabetes."

Saavedra is not the only one upset. The proposal triggered the resignation of the president of the East Los Angeles office's 18-member advisory board, Simon R. Valencia. The Los Angeles internist said he quit because the diabetes association office did not consult the entire East Los Angeles advisory board about the closing, which would reduce services to Latinos.

Lorraine D. Wilson, executive director of the Los Angeles County Chapter of ADA, said the agency consulted Valencia and another board member about the closing before it was announced to the advisory board.

She said two other ADA field representatives work from Mid-Wilshire without a field office, and that the change is designed to provide staff support that will help the field representative reach Latinos throughout Los Angeles County.

Many Latinos Affected

Experts say Latinos are disproportionately affected by diabetes, which can cause blindness, heart and kidney disease, nerve damage and gangrene that leads to amputations. The high incidence of the disease appears to be related to obesity, a diet high in cholesterol or a genetic admixture with Native Americans, who also have a high incidence of diabetes. That data figured in Valencia's protest.

"There are going to be several effects," Valencia said about the closing of the office, which opened in 1983. "The ADA is going to get disconnected from the Latino community in Los Angeles, because the office serves East Los Angeles and about 20 communities that surround it.

"Here you have people who are poor, who do not know how to use community resources because of their background and who are in dire need of being reached out to by an institution like the ADA."

Wilson said she is leaning strongly toward closing the East Los Angeles office, but has not decided.

She said that although the former East Los Angeles field representative, Joseph A. Fierro, has been transferred to Mid-Wilshire, he will spend considerable time in East Los Angeles and other Latino areas.

Lectures May Be Moved

Wilson said White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights offered a conference room for patient education lectures if the East Los Angeles office closes.

"We have to find a larger room for the lectures," she said, noting that the conference room at East Los Angeles often overflows for monthly lectures.

"I'm not trying to tell them where the lecture should be," she said. "As long as it is in the same community in the same time and place, and it's convenient with parking and well lighted and pleasant, we feel people will come.

". . . Our presence doesn't have to do with a building. It has to do with the programs we're offering and the volunteers who do them and the materials we provide."

Wilson said that, ironically, the changes flowed from a national directive to reach more Latinos.

Directors Considered Statistics

The ADA's board of directors adopted the directive last October after considering statistics that showed a disproportionate incidence of diabetes among Mexican-Americans.

Valencia said about 10% of the 2 million to 3 million Latinos in Los Angeles County, including transients, suffer from diabetes. Dr. Donald Garcia, a fellow in geriatric medicine at USC School of Medicine, said Mexican-American men are three times as likely and Mexican-American women are 1.5 to 2 times as likely as Caucasians to develop diabetes.

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