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A Hospital With Celebrity Status

June 08, 1989|PATRICK MOTT

Most people don't keep diaries of their workdays, but as April 18 began to unfold, Ron Wise, spokesman for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, thought he'd better.

That morning, during an anti-abortion demonstration outside the center, Gary Morton, Lucille Ball's husband, telephoned to say his wife was suffering chest pains and he was bringing her to the hospital. Shortly afterward, Wise said, "a tidal wave" of calls from concerned fans began to light up the hospital's switchboard.

"She was in the OR for 2 1/2 hours," Wise said, "and in the middle of all this, Ruth (Mrs. Milton) Berle died."

Still, the clamor for news about Ball's condition prompted Wise to ask Ball's doctors to do something they almost never do after heart surgery at the hospital: hold a press conference. During the conference, Wise said, in addition to providing updates on Ball, he announced Ruth Berle's death.

And, before the day was through, Wise had to deal with inquiries from reporters who had seen actor Gene Wilder arrive at the hospital earlier in the day and had guessed--correctly--that his wife, comedian Gilda Radner, had checked in for treatment related to her battle with cancer.

"I stayed on the phones all night," Wise said with a weary look. "We got hundreds of calls from all over the world that first day Lucille was here."

That day, however, was unusual for Cedars-Sinai only in its intensity and not necessarily because of its celebrity cast of characters. The staff of Cedars-Sinai, after all, is accustomed to seeing famous faces about as often as the parking lot attendants at Spago.

In fact, the wife of Wolfgang Puck, the owner of the trendy restaurant, had a baby last week at Cedars. As did the wife of actor Michael J. Fox--the same day. As has the wife of actor Tom Selleck.

James Garner, Milton Berle, Ella Fitzgerald and George Burns all have undergone heart surgery at Cedars. Sid Caesar, Totie Fields, Peter Lawford and Henry Fonda have been treated there. And other members of the Southern California entertainment community have anted up hefty endowments to fund medical programs and construction at the facility.

The mammoth 1.6-million-square-foot Cedars-Sinai complex has been called "the hospital of the stars," but that is a handle that the medical center's staff finds a bit irksome. The hospital's 1,120 beds are not routinely filled with celebrities, they say.

A Routine Presence

But celebrities, if a relatively tiny percentage of the patient population, are a routine presence there. One reason, medical director Jim Klinenberg said, is that "We catch 'em where they work and catch 'em where they live. We are very close to Beverly Hills and Hollywood, where many celebrities live and work."

And, beyond mere proximity, many of the 2,300 physicians on the center's staff are the personal doctors of many stars, Klinenberg said. Since the institution's early days, when it operated as two hospitals, Mt. Sinai and Cedars of Lebanon, it has been "tied to show business," he said. As a consequence, he added, a "referral network" evolved through which celebrity patients recommended their doctors to other celebrities. And Cedars happened to be the home base of many of those doctors.

Still, staff members say, the final determiner is the hospital's broad capabilities for treatment. The largest nonprofit voluntary health-care facility west of the Mississippi, Cedars-Sinai is the second-largest medical facility in Los Angeles, outstripped in size only by the publicly funded County-USC Medical Center. It is known, among other things, for its newborn and pediatric facilities and its cardiac care, research and technology, which Klinenberg said are among the finest in the world.

"We're a giant internationally in the field of heart disease," he said, "and people recognize that. And when we're talking about celebrities, we're talking about people who can afford the best. They might fly to Boston or to the Mayo Clinic for their treatment if there were no Cedars here."

Well-Endowed Center

The center is also the recipient of a handful of whopping private endowments, some of which have been provided by famous names in the entertainment community. George Burns (for whom one of the center's interior streets is named) donated $2 million to the hospital's endowment fund, former 20th Century Fox owner Marvin Davis and his wife, Barbara, gave $5 million for a research building, and director Steven Spielberg came up with $5 million that has been earmarked for the refurbishing of a pediatrics facility and the funding of a chair in pediatrics.

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