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Tragic Catch-911 for dying woman

Upset she was not being treated at King-Harbor, two callers were told she could not be sent to another hospital.

June 13, 2007|Charles Ornstein and Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writers

In the 40 minutes before a woman's death last month at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, two separate callers pleaded with 911 dispatchers to send help because the hospital staff was ignoring her as she writhed on the floor, according to audio recordings of the calls.

"My wife is dying and the nurses don't want to help her out," Jose Prado, the woman's boyfriend, told the 911 dispatcher through an interpreter.

He was calling from a pay phone outside the hospital, his tone increasingly desperate as he described how his 43-year-old girlfriend was spitting up blood.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department dispatcher struggled to make sense of his predicament, then urged him to contact a doctor or nurse.

"Paramedics are not going to pick him up, or pick his wife up, from a hospital, because she's already at one," the dispatcher said.

Eight minutes later, an unidentified woman, apparently another patient, dialed 911 and reached a different dispatcher. After a short debate about whether the call was an emergency, the dispatcher scolded her and insisted that it was not. The 2 1/2 -minute call ended on a hostile note.

"May God strike you too for acting the way you just acted," the frustrated caller told the dispatcher, just before 2 a.m. on May 9.

"No. Negative ma'am, you're the one," the dispatcher responded before disconnecting.

The patient, Edith Isabel Rodriguez, was pronounced dead at 2:17 a.m., the victim of "inexcusable" indifference by staff at King-Harbor, county health officials later acknowledged.

Rodriguez lay untreated on the ER lobby floor for 45 minutes before dying. A video camera captured the episode, showing that staffers and patients stood by as a janitor cleaned the floor around her. She was buried in Tehachapi on Tuesday.

The county coroner ruled that Rodriguez died of a perforated bowel, with the injury probably occurring in her last 24 hours of life. Experts have said that the condition might have been treatable if caught earlier.

The incident is the latest high-profile lapse at King-Harbor, formerly known as King/Drew, which has been dogged by troubles almost since its inception. The Willowbrook hospital's fate is uncertain as it prepares for a final review by federal officials to determine whether it should retain crucial funding.

Rodriguez's death was just one of the King-Harbor issues discussed Tuesday during a meeting of the county Board of Supervisors. Also at that meeting, the county health services director disclosed that the hospital had replaced its medical director, citing his handling of an unrelated lapse in patient care. In that case, a man with a brain tumor languished without treatment in the ER for four days before he was taken elsewhere by family and friends for emergency surgery.

In Rodriguez's case, the 911 recordings were released by the Sheriff's Department in response to California Public Records Act requests by The Times. Both illustrate how confounding it was for the emergency response system to handle a bizarre scenario in which a patient dying in plain sight at a hospital could not get treatment there.

"What's real confusing ... was that she was at a medical facility," said Sheriff's Capt. Steven M. Roller, who is in charge of the Century Station, which handled the calls. "That poses some real quandaries."

At the same time, Roller said, the dismissive tone of the second dispatcher, who was not identified, was inappropriate.

"As a station commander, I don't like any of my employees getting rude or nasty with any caller, regardless, and in that particular case, obviously, the employee's conduct could have been better," Roller said. The employee received written "counseling," Roller said.

The unidentified dispatcher to whom Roller referred kept cutting off the female bystander.

"Ma'am, I cannot do anything for you for the quality of the hospital there," the dispatcher said. "Do you understand what I'm saying? This line is for emergency purposes only.... 911 is used for emergency purposes only."

The woman replied, "This is an emergency, mister."

The dispatcher cut her off. "It is not an emergency. It is not an emergency, ma'am."

"It is," the woman said.

"It is not an emergency," the dispatcher replied.

"You're not here to see how they're treating her," the bystander said.

"OK, well, that's not a criminal thing. You understand what I'm saying?" the dispatcher said.

"Excuse me, if this woman fall out and die, what [do] you mean there ain't a criminal thing?" the woman said.

Roller said the Sheriff's Department does not have a policy for responding to calls for medical aid from hospitals. He said the two 911 calls weren't linked by dispatchers because neither was deemed to merit a response, and therefore neither was logged in the computer as a call for service.

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