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Deadly errors and politics betray a hospital's promise

First of Five Parts

A Times investigation finds King/Drew far more dangerous than the public knows. Community pride, timid county leadership stand in the way of a remedy.

December 05, 2004|By Tracy Weber, Charles Ornstein and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

On a warm July afternoon, an impish second-grader named Dunia Tasejo was running home after buying ice cream on her South Los Angeles street when a car sideswiped her. Knocked to the pavement, she screamed for help, blood pouring from her mouth.

Her father bolted from the house to her side. An ambulance rushed her to the nearest hospital: Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

For Elias and Sulma Tasejo, there was no greater terror than seeing their 9-year-old daughter strapped to a gurney that day in 2000. But once they arrived at King/Drew, fear gave way to relief.

Dunia's injuries were minor: some scrapes, some bruises and two broken baby teeth. The teeth would have to be pulled.

"They told me to relax," Sulma recalled. "Everything was fine."

At least, it should have been.

What the Tasejos didn't know was that King/Drew, a 233-bed public hospital in Willowbrook, just south of Watts, had a long history of harming, or even killing, those it was meant to serve.

Over the last year, reports by journalists and regulators have offered stark glimpses of failings at King/Drew: Nurses neglecting patients as they lay dying. Staff failing to give patients crucial drugs or giving them toxic ones by mistake. Guards using Taser stun guns on psychiatric patients, despite an earlier warning to stop.

Over the same period, a team of Times reporters has been systematically examining the hospital. They conducted hundreds of interviews, studied years of malpractice cases and reviewed records of the hospital and its regulators. They looked closely at individual departments and physicians. And, to put their findings in perspective, they consulted outside experts in hospitals and medical care.

The investigation reveals that King/Drew is much more dangerous than the public has been told.

Among the findings:

•  Errors and neglect by King/Drew's staff have repeatedly injured or killed patients over more than a decade, a pattern that remains largely unscrutinized and unchecked. Some lapses were never reported to authorities — or even to the victims or their families. And some people learned of the severity of the failings only by suing or, in several instances, from Times reporters who sought them out to learn about their care.

•  Although King/Drew opened in 1972 with the promise that it would be "the very best hospital in America," it is now, by various measures, one of the very worst. It pays out more per patient for medical malpractice than any of the state's 17 other public hospitals or the six University of California medical centers.

•  Entire departments are riddled with incompetence, internal strife and, in some cases, criminality. Employees have pilfered and sometimes sold the hospital's drugs; chronic absenteeism is rampant; assaults between hospital workers are not uncommon. Despite King/Drew's repeated promises to regulators, the problems have gone unfixed for years.

•  The hospital's failings do not stem from a lack of money, as its supporters long have contended. King/Drew spends more per patient than any of the three other general hospitals run by Los Angeles County. Millions of dollars go to unusual workers' compensation claims and abnormally high salaries for ranking doctors.

•  The hospital's governing body, the county Board of Supervisors, has been told repeatedly — often in writing — of needless deaths and injuries at King/Drew. Recently the supervisors have made some aggressive moves aimed at fixing the hospital. But for years, the board shied away from decisive action in the face of community anger and accusations of racism.

King/Drew, founded in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots, has stood for more than three decades as a symbol of justice and political power to many black people in South Los Angeles and beyond. In reality, if not officially, the hospital was established by and for African Americans; the majority of its staff always has been black.

"That hospital means hope to us," said Karimu McNeal, 52, an African American woman treated successfully for colon cancer at King/Drew in 2002. "When you go into the hospital and you see people that look like you and take care of you, it gives you hope for the whole race that we're achieving and doing something."

Mixed with community pride is an undercurrent of concern about King/Drew's standards. For about three decades it has been known by an unflattering nickname, "Killer King." Patients have fled ambulances to avoid it, according to paramedics and one ranking fire official. And police officers say they have an understanding among themselves that, if shot, they will not be taken there.

The Tasejos, immigrants from Guatemala, didn't know any of this the day their daughter was hurt. All they knew was that she needed help.

In the seven hours after Dunia's arrival, the hospital would commit a series of medical errors in treating her, each compounding the one before.

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