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County-USC: Caring, Efficient--and Surprising

July 25, 1993|AGNES G. HERMAN | Agnes G. Herman is a retired social worker, free-lance writer and AIDS lecturer who lives in Lake San Marcos. Her daughter, Judi, who lives in Whittier, has fully recovered from gallbladder surgery.

Until our 42-year-old daughter, Judi, awakened in the middle of the night with searing, unrelenting pain, County-USC Medical Center was merely an imposing edifice along the freeway in Boyle Heights. A building that had no relevance to our lives suddenly became integral to us.

Paramedics rushed Judi to Whittier Hospital, where she was sedated, diagnosed, stabilized and then shipped to "County." Our daughter had failed to purchase medical insurance after her husband, whom she is divorcing, canceled the family policy. Whittier Hospital would not retain her without financial guarantees and Judi, a student living on the limited dollars her soon-to-be-ex-husband provides for her and their 5-year-old son, had none to offer.

Despite our original misgivings, we learned that County is not a punishment for poverty. It is, rather, a splendid generic health center for the uninsured and the indigent.

Judi's father and I arrived at her bedside to find her on intravenous feeding, attempting to sleep through her pain. She had been put to bed until the inflammation of her pancreas subsided, so that her gallbladder could be removed.

Judi's five-bed ward was spacious and bright. She was the only English-speaking patient there, thus communication with the others and their visitors was limited to charades.

Cleanliness and efficient patient care are not different in County from private hospitals of my experience. I found that the care-givers' response times to patients' call buttons was quicker at County. Missing are the perks that have become the expected "goodies" of a hospital stay. Back rubs and ice cream between meals, an escort to the bathroom and bedside telephone, tomorrow's menu and TV are nonessentials, beyond the budget, nowhere to be found.

While Judi slept, we spent time dawdling on the front steps of the building, spectators sitting on the edge of new experiences.

Families and friends filled the benches below us, creating an almost festive atmosphere. Large, multigenerational families, visiting the sick, delighted in their children. Each adult and teen-age member seemed to take a turn, visiting and baby-sitting, as shift replaced shift during the two-hour periods.

Sprinkled among the visitors were ambulatory patients, all in identical hospital gowns, who came outside for fresh air or a cigarette. It was incongruous to me as I watched a little old lady, supporting her IV unit with one hand and holding a lit cigarette in the other.

But people-watching was an incidental part of our twice-a-day trips to County in April.

Our concern was the health and well-being of Judi. There were good news and bad news daily.

The good news was the consistent efficiency and caring of a full staff, adequate equipment--all working seven days a week. At County you do not have to worry that only a skeleton staff is available on the weekend. There is no skeleton staff; there are no weekends. Every day is a workday. There are always medical students and young residents about, and they are eager to be helpful, to explain and to reassure.

The young student who took special interest in us drew a fine diagram of the gallbladder, liver and pancreas, providing us with clarity that we did not previously have.

But when he and another student tried, with the best of intentions, to comfort us with assurances about Judi's quick recovery and early departure, it was a disservice. They were optimistic without sharing their supporting medical knowledge with us. Their promises failed to be fulfilled.

Nevertheless, they communicated with us regularly. And as apprehensive parents, we needed that. On the other hand, it was difficult to converse with the doctors in charge. Not that they were impolite; they merely spoke grudgingly in monosyllables and always seemed to want to turn away quickly. When, after surgery, I inquired at the desk about our daughter, one of the doctors seated there spoke up without lifting his head: "That surgery went well!" He then left without another word. Only later did I find out that he was Judi's surgeon.

When Judi asked that same surgeon about the drain in her side, he examined it and said: "Oops, I forgot to suture it in place. I'm afraid there will be a scar. Sorry."

Throughout my life I have visited many places. And County must belong to that list to which Dr. Seuss refers in his final book, "Oh, the Places You'll Go!": "You'll get mixed up, of course. . . . You'll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. . . ."

For Judi, County was a place of healing. For me, it was a new experience.

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