Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center has become as well known for its own ailments as for helping the sick. It is as indebted as many of the poor who use it and tarnished by a string of scandals that exposed problem doctors and a series of medical mishaps.
But as the main facility serving South-Central Los Angeles, King/Drew must still find a way to continue aiding the hundreds of thousands of patients who have nowhere else to go.
So administrators at the county hospital are trying to create a polished fund-raising operation more often associated with private hospitals or national charities.
King/Drew administrators have no illusions about how much a fledgling group of 12 volunteers can do--especially because for the most part the center cannot rely on the grateful support of wealthy former patients--the best source of donations for posh medical centers like Cedars-Sinai or UCLA Medical Center.
King/Drew's goal is to find enough extra money to make day-to-day life at the hospital more bearable with purchases of extras that most hospitals take for granted, like a new mobile incubator for the pediatric ward.
"We can only try," said Delilah E. Lanoix, the president of King/Drew's 4-year-old General Hospital Foundation, which will begin its higher-profile fund-raising effort later this month with a golf tournament in Lakewood. "Every dollar raised and every person that we get to recognize the value that this hospital has to the community is worth a million dollars."
The tournament will be held Sept. 13 at Lakewood Country Club, with players paying $100 a round and corporate tables going as high as $5,000 to benefit the newly christened Denzel Washington Pediatric Pavilion.
King/Drew named the children's ward after Washington not because of his donations to the medical center, but to honor the actor's work with children and encourage others to become hospital supporters.
So far, Lanoix said, 10 area companies signed up to be "gold" sponsors of the event, although only after the foundation agreed in many cases to mark the price down from $5,000 to $2,500 a table.
After the golf event comes a winter gala with Washington, organized by county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke's office.
Randall Foster, the hospital's chief operations officer, said the foundation is asking prospective donors to consider a contribution to the 24-year-old hospital as a social commitment.
"These individuals have many options," Foster said. "To align themselves with a medical center in South-Central Los Angeles, irrespective of any economic difference, means we still have a human cause that people believe in."
Competition for funds is stiff.
The UCLA Health Sciences Development Department, as just one example, raised almost $126 million last year for the UCLA Medical Center and medical school, said its interim director, Sally Blowitz. Hollywood heavyweight Michael Ovitz heads its board, and the hospital boasts gifts from Barbra Streisand and cosmetics giant Revlon.
"We've been around a while," Blowitz said, adding that she has a full-time staff of about 40 people to raise funds for a variety of facilities and schools at UCLA, compared with King/Drew's handful of volunteers. "King/Drew is going to have to mobilize community members as to the value its particular market niche and that's going to take time.
"I know it will be hard, but I don't think it's impossible," said Blowitz, a 16-year veteran of medical fund-raising. "We have a very generous community."
Before 1972, when the hospital was dedicated, there were no such medical facilities in Watts, Willowbrook or anywhere else in South-Central Los Angeles. Community leaders had long complained that patients died en route across the Los Angeles River to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center or the former Georgia Street hospital, near the Convention Center.
The need for a facility came to a head after the 1965 Watts riots. The McCone Commission, which investigated the causes of the uprising, recommended building a facility to serve the residents of some of Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods as well as to train minority physicians who were rejected elsewhere.
What began as a community hospital, funded by the county, state and federal governments, evolved into a major trauma center and a key component in the county's emergency services network.
As dozens of private hospitals and smaller clinics closed or cut back care during the last two decades, King has been forced to open its doors wider. At the same time, its population of welfare patients began to rise and state and federal reimbursements for treating Medicaid patients began to fall.
Each year, King/Drew treats 3,500 victims of life-threatening trauma, Foster said. The hospital admits 22,000 patients annually and last year handled 250,000 outpatient visits to its hospital and clinics.
It was a steady progression of bad economic years that prompted the foundation, a vision of former chief administrator Edward Renford, in 1992.