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Sunday Report

Graveyard Shift

At night in the hospital, the 'Angel of Death' preyed on the helpless. Finally the 'goody-goody' was one of the bad guys. But as patients died, talk of his 'magic syringe' spread among fellow respiratory therapists.

April 28, 2002|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Salbi Asatryan was found dead in her bed. It was 4:26 a.m.

An Armenian immigrant, Asatryan, 75, had been rushed to Glendale Adventist Medical Center three days earlier, on Dec. 27, 1996. She was in acute respiratory failure and needed a nasal ventilator to help her breathe.

They put her in Critical Care, bed nine. To Bob Baker, she was "just a little old lady . . . a little barrel-chested thing, and sweet." He was one of the respiratory therapists who treated her. She had daughters, Baker remembered, and they were often by her side. He was surprised by her death.

"She was doing better," he'd thought. "She was improving."

Elmer Diwa thought so too. He was another respiratory therapist, and he had seen Asatryan shortly before 1 a.m. She was confused but awake by then--off the ventilator, able to breathe on her own.

When Baker and Diwa got off work, they liked to have a smoke and gossip before getting into their cars. This time they talked about their golf games, then got around to the woman in bed nine. In the underground parking garage, as daylight broke outside, Diwa offered an explanation for her death.

"Don't you know about Efren and his magic syringe?"

A hospital becomes a different place at night. The visiting families go home. So do the administrators. Most of the doctors go too. That leaves the patients and the staff, alone with each other. "Lights off and quiet" is how Efren Saldivar described the graveyard shift.

Night was when the gloom in the sickrooms matched the horrors of his mind.

Saldivar compared what he was doing to shoplifting a stick of gum. Once you've done it, "you don't think about it for the rest of the day," he said, "or ever." He couldn't even say how often he'd done it. He "lost count."

Long before authorities began digging up bodies, others suspected what he was doing in the darkness. They whispered about it, even joked about it. By the time the truth reached the light of day, it was too late for many.

*

SALDIVAR WAS ONCE asked whether he became a respiratory therapist because he wanted to take care of people.

"No," he replied. He liked the uniform.

He was born Sept. 30, 1969, in Brownsville, Texas, not far from where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico. Raised in Mexico, his mother, Isaura Saldivar, liked to say that she "jumped across the river" when she became pregnant so her son would be a U.S. citizen. She gave birth at the home of a midwife, who signed Efren's birth certificate with an X.

His parents, Isaura, then 20, and Alfredo, 31, followed a classic route for immigrants, heading toward jobs and a better place to raise a family. Their son was not yet 2 when they moved to the Los Angeles area and bought a wood-frame bungalow in Tujunga in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The backyard had enough room for chickens.

Efren's father worked as a plasterer and handyman, operating out of a battered pickup. His mother also worked with her hands, as a seamstress making dresses. But she had higher aspirations for the family. A Jehovah's Witness, she insisted that the children be raised in the faith that believed in salvation through good works and door-to-door proselytizing. She liked dressing everyone up on Sunday.

Though the couple spoke Spanish at home, their two boys grew up bilingual, picking up English from TV and from other kids in the neighborhood. The younger son, Eduardo, went by Eddie.

Childhood photos show Efren as a clean-cut boy, cherubic in his earliest years, if sad-eyed at times. His father was a wiry 5-foot-6 and his brother was slight too, but Efren was taller than average and hefty, with a soft, round face.

While he was at Pinewood Elementary School, teachers praised his "outgoing personality" and found him "pleasant" and "delightful," although one worried that he was naive, too sheltered. He enjoyed painting and showed an aptitude for math, scoring higher than the 90th percentile on some tests.

Yet he didn't always put his mind to his studies. He admitted that he was lazy in those lower grades. He wrote in a self-evaluation a few years later: "I never did any classwork nor homework."

But fail? Never.

"Because I'm a goody-goody."

In seventh grade, when he was 12, he stepped on a nail. It sliced the outside of his left foot and pushed his little toe out of alignment. He spent several weeks at County-USC Medical Center.

While there, he wrote a composition he called "Some Experiences in My Life." He mentioned that he was sewing a canvas backpack and learning to play the oboe, but the essay was mostly about his experience in the hospital.

"My doctor inserted a long surgical steel wire lining up all the small bones of my little toe," he reported. "The doctors inserted a needle to withdraw the infection (pus). When I came to the hospital, I was in shock. I trembled. They gave me a shot to calm me and numb my senses. My skin surface went to sleep, but under this surface I was still in pain."

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