Two buildings at the Long Beach Veterans Affairs Medical Center offer a study in contrasts.
One of them, built in 1967, houses as many as 160 patients with spinal cord injuries. Here, resting in drab wards of seven beds each, men and women in wheelchairs struggle toward health in quarters that are noisy and crowded.
Less than 130 feet away at the end of a corridor, meanwhile, is the sleek new 140,000-square-foot Ernest Bors Spinal Cord Injury Center, which is twice the size of the older ward.
There, the long shining halls are graced with large color photographs of sailboats, seascapes and hot-air balloons. Electric doors swing open at the touch of a button, while soft interior lights illuminate the decor. Spacious day rooms filled with new furniture still covered in plastic complement large four-bed patient suites, landscaped patios and a dining room with tables that drop electronically from the ceiling.
Except for the security guards who patrol it and the gardeners who mow the lawn, however, the place is as deserted as a ghost town.
It's been that way since last October when the $18-million two-story Bors Center was dedicated with great hoopla.
Then the money ran out. After discovering a major deficit in their annual health care budget, administrators at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington decided to use the money that was earmarked to finish the Long Beach building and others elsewhere to maintain basic medical services instead of completing new building projects.
Patients Next Year
And although Congress recently approved emergency legislation to restore the money, medical center officials say, the Ernest Bors building--the largest spinal cord injury center for veterans on the West Coast--is likely to remain vacant at least until early 1990 when hospital officials hope to move in the first patients from the cramped ward next door.
"We're sitting over here with a horrendous white elephant on its back," said Joe Fox, vice president of the 1,500-member California Paralyzed Veterans Assn., which represents the state's estimated 9,000 veterans with spinal cord injuries.
Many of those veterans are wheelchair-bound or bedridden and require special ramps and modern medical equipment that the new building will provide. While some of that equipment is available in the older facility, access to state-of-the-art care in the Ernest Bors facility will make their difficult, painful existences easier, veterans say.
"Everybody is complaining," said Ed Santillanes, the association's president. "The only thing that's being used is the dining room for meetings and parties.
"It's a beautiful building, but it's just a showpiece. It's been a constant (source of frustration)."
The 120-bed Ernest Bors Center--named after a pioneer specialist who was once the hospital's chief of spinal cord injury service--features modern built-in oxygen suction systems for those with respiratory difficulties, easily accessible bathrooms with lights that go on automatically when someone enters and special trapeze devices on each bed to enhance patient movement and exercise.
In addition, the center is equipped with an extensive system of ramps for wheelchair access, private and semiprivate areas for recreation and relaxation and a one-bedroom apartment to help prepare paralyzed veterans and their spouses for independent living.
A lot of things have changed in the last 20 years in how you treat spinal injury patients," said Dean R. Stordahl, director of the medical center, located on Long Beach's east side near the Orange County line. "Their life expectancy has increased and we are more conscious of privacy now. There is heightened awareness in society that these are not people to be pitied and treated as patients, but as viable individuals."
The Long Beach Veterans Affairs Medical Center was chosen as the site for the Ernest Bors center because its spinal cord injury program is the largest on the West Coast and one of the best known in the country, Stordahl said. Construction started in 1986 and, for two years, went as planned.
Last Year's Predictions
At last year's dedication ceremony, attended by various dignitaries including Thomas K. Turnage, head of the Veterans Administration in the Reagan Administration, hospital officials confidently predicted that the newly completed building would be in use by early 1989.
But they needed about $2.4 million more to finish the job. And about the same time that veterans officials in Long Beach were proudly conducting grand tours of the massive new building, officials in Washington were discovering an unexpected $635-million deficit in their national health care budget.