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Closing of Clinic Leaves Many in Lurch

September 14, 2002|DAREN BRISCOE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nine public health clinics across Los Angeles County closed down Friday, part of a controversial plan to trim millions from a health-care budget that county officials said had ballooned out of control.

But after a long and noisy political battle to try to save the clinics, the Alhambra Health Center, one of the nine, will disappear quietly.

The clinic's double doors will be locked on Monday, with signs taped to the windows telling people where they can go for medical care. The television set will no longer flicker in the lobby. And the doctors and nurses who dispensed care to the poor and uninsured who once crowded the waiting room will move on to other facilities.

For office manager Stella Gadsen, 53, the countless little things that won't happen anymore bring memories.

She's a little girl again, clutching a bag lunch and holding her mother's hand during a daylong trip to see the doctor. In the 1950s, she rode the trolley from Venice all the way to County-USC Medical Center. To Gadsen, the county's closing of community health clinics and concentrating of inpatient services at large hospitals is a big step backward.

"The county opened up all these centers to make them accessible to the community, and now they're closing them down," Gadsen said Friday. "It's like we're going back in time."

The Alhambra Health Center, which opened as a hospital in 1929, has been the only public health clinic in the city of 86,000. For many, the two-story brick building has represented the sole source of medical treatment.

"There are so many people here who don't have insurance," said Scarlett Yen, who last week took her 3-year-old daughter Ellen to the clinic for a tuberculosis test.

Until Friday, the clinic offered prenatal care, immunizations, family medicine and family planning services. Last year, the Alhambra clinic logged 11,560 patient visits.

Alhambra is an immigrant city. Half of its population is foreign-born, according to the 2000 census. The vast majority of those immigrants are from Asia and Latin America. Most of the clinic's patients fell below state poverty guidelines, according to Yamel Bennett, 29, a clerk who worked as a patient financial screener.

"It's rare for us to have a patient that has to pay [for medical services] because their income is too high," Bennett said.

"People living in the area rely on it very heavily," said Hugo Almeida, the clinic administrator.

That reliance was a source of pride for clinic employees like Aida Lopez, a vocational nurse who worked at Alhambra for 18 years.

"We have patients that have been coming here for 20 years," Lopez said. "They have to be coming back for a reason."

Lopez said it wasn't just the free or low-cost medical care that kept patients coming back, but the personal touch that she and her colleagues brought to their work.

Lopez, who immunized as many as 75 children a day, brought a grandmotherly mien to her work, chastising a patient for missing an appointment one moment and inquiring about family the next.

"We don't just treat our patients," Lopez said. "We care for them and see them get well."

As if to make the point, nurse Julie Iwuh told the story of Frankie, a developmentally disabled patient in his late 20s who wandered into the clinic four or five years ago. He was dirty and disoriented, Iwuh said, and requested treatment for some unspecified illness. As it turned out, Iwuh said, Frankie was so terrified of needles that he wouldn't sit still for a necessary injection until she held his hand.

Frankie then started showing up every two or three months, Iwuh said, usually disheveled and seeking treatment.

"But he's not physically sick anymore," she said. "He just wants a hug. I'll tell him, 'Go home and take a nice bath, then come back and hug me,' and he does."

Iwuh said the clinic was able to monitor Frankie's health and avoid wasting money on unnecessary medical treatment because the doctors and nurses knew him. The next time he comes by, there will be no one there to hold his hand.

"I don't know what will happen to Frankie now," Iwuh said.

The clinic's many Mandarin-speaking patients may also wonder what the future holds, since they can't be sure they will find nurses like Theresa Wai to translate medical terms or diagnoses.

For weeks now, signs announcing the closure have been posted on the clinic doors. Yvonne DeLeon, a clerk who schedules patient appointments, has reminded patients of the closure and handed out listings of county health centers nearest them: the El Monte Comprehensive Health Center, the Edward R. Roybal Comprehensive Health Center in Los Angeles and, if the situation is dire, County-USC Medical Center.

Patients used to walking two or three blocks to the Alhambra clinic will now have to drive--or walk-- as much as three miles to reach the nearest county-operated health center.

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