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Plan to Close Trauma Unit Jolts South L.A.

King/Drew proposal is seen by residents as one more affront to their community.

September 15, 2004|Mitchell Landsberg and Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writers

When the news reached the corner of 84th and San Pedro streets, Elnora Bright found it difficult to believe.

There are so few vibrant civic institutions in this pocket of South Los Angeles, where Bright, 46, works as a crossing guard. Now Los Angeles County supervisors are planning to close the trauma unit at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

"They are taking everything from us, everything from our little neighborhood," she said. "It's like they think we don't care enough, don't fight enough. It's like, 'Let's do it to them. They don't care.' "

That framing of the issue -- us versus them -- was typical of responses to the announcement Monday by the Board of Supervisors that it planned to shutter the trauma center.

As has so often been the case in the history of King/Drew, an iconic but deeply troubled institution that grew out of the 1965 Watts riots, many African Americans see themselves as the "us" pitted against a predominantly white "them."

Perhaps just as significantly, the proposal pitted the poorest section of Los Angeles County -- a mostly black and Latino community that believes it is frequently overlooked by downtown power brokers -- against five county supervisors who insisted they were acting in the best interests of all who use the public hospital.

"They're disrespecting us, that's what they're doing," said Wilbur Sims, 48, who sells DVDs, digital watches and belts on the sidewalk across the street from King/Drew. "It's all politics. They can say what they want about money and all that, but Mexican and black people in this neighborhood have been saved in that trauma center. I've been saved myself when I was shot."

Short of closing the hospital, it is hard to imagine anything the Board of Supervisors could have done with King/Drew that would have been more of an affront to the community it serves. In an area where shootings are a daily occurrence and nearly everyone knows someone who has suffered a violent injury, King/Drew's trauma center is more than just a part of the local folklore. It's the place to go when you're shot or stabbed.

"If they pull trauma out of here, they might as well put a graveyard up in its place," said Kerry Davis, 41, of South Los Angeles, who was sitting in the waiting room at the trauma center to visit a friend. "They're building hospitals in Iraq -- what about us? We're Americans."

The supervisors said Monday they were proposing to close the trauma unit within 90 days to help stabilize the struggling hospital, and not because the unit itself was doing a poor job.

Trauma services, they said, are costly and labor-intensive and put a strain on all aspects of the hospital. By closing the unit and diverting trauma cases to other hospitals, they intend to ease the strain and allow King/Drew to catch its breath.

The emergency room at King/Drew would stay open under the proposal. Emergency rooms treat a wide range of afflictions, from cut fingers to heart attacks, while trauma centers focus on violent injuries such as gunshot and stab wounds.

The board acted after a series of lapses at King/Drew in the last year that regulators say harmed patients and led to the deaths of at least five people. A management team of top county officials was unable to fix the hospital to regulators' satisfaction, jeopardizing federal funding.

The board members said they did not rule out the possibility of reopening the trauma unit after the rest of the hospital was straightened out.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, whose father helped found the hospital, said the announcement "caught everyone off guard."

"Stunning," he said.

Hahn and his sister, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, wrote a letter Tuesday asking supervisors not to close the trauma center.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose district boundaries come within a few blocks of the hospital, issued a scathing statement that described the proposal as a "cynical" attempt to divert money from King/Drew to other trauma centers. She promised to "do everything in my power to keep L.A. County from making another mistake."

SEIU Local 660, the public employees union that represents many workers at the hospital, also threw its weight against the proposal, saying it flew in the face of Measure B, an initiative passed by voters two years ago to keep the county's trauma system afloat.

The decision was all the more surprising to the hospital's supporters given the history of King/Drew. Some board members acknowledge that racial sensitivities have prompted them to tip-toe around issues regarding the hospital.

Without citing race, Supervisor Michael Antonovich said Monday that the board's response to a series of problems at the hospital over the previous nine months had been "pathetic."

But in unanimously proposing to close the trauma center, the supervisors were trying to send a clear signal that they intend to confront the hospital's problems head-on.

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