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The State | COLUMN ONE

Turf war stops at the ER

With an understanding of gang life born from his own past, Mike Garcia brings comfort to street combatants and peace to a Boyle Heights hospital.

May 04, 2007|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

THE call came in just after 10 p.m. on a recent Monday.

"Mike, we got a GSW."

A gunshot wound.

Mike Garcia hopped into his beat-up Mazda and drove to the emergency room at White Memorial Medical Center in Boyle Heights. He joined veteran nurse Eileen Powell beside a man on a gurney who had been shot multiple times at a local park. One of the bullets had shattered his thighbone into jagged halves just above the right knee.

"Do we have any gang affiliation on him?" Powell asked Garcia. "I want to make sure whoever did this is not going to be coming by here to finish the job."

Six years ago, White Memorial Hospital looked for someone who could help the hospital remain safe in a neighborhood where turf was claimed by some of Los Angeles' oldest and most territorial gangs.

A painful moment in the hospital's history had forced officials to prepare for the worst. In the early 1990s, a 19-year-old gang member was brought to the emergency room with a gunshot wound to his head. As more than 30 friends gathered around the entrance, rivals walked up and sprayed shotgun and rifle fire. A pregnant woman inside was wounded.

Some urban hospitals have installed metal detectors or hired armed guards. But at White Memorial, "We decided that if we armed, we would have entered into the combat," said Dr. Brian Johnston, chief of emergency services. "We would have rapidly become the enemy."

In part through Father Gregory Boyle -- founder of Homeboy Industries, a program that tries to wean gang members out of that life -- they heard about Garcia, a self-described "retired" Boyle Heights gangster and two-striker who had spent nearly 20 years of his life in juvenile hall and prison.

Garcia, 61, took on one of the most unusual jobs in the hospital industry.

Since he started at White, he has broken up fights, counseled gang members, separated them, and also comforted those who have been touched by the gangsters' violence.

Like a doctor, Garcia is available 24/7, standing by for pages. But unlike anyone else at the hospital, much of his job is on the streets. He talks to gang members, keeps track of new graffiti and connects with informants who keep him up to date on the latest rivalries.

"Mike definitely has made us more secure," Johnston said. "Without Mike, there would be no real way for us to reinforce our role as neutral territory. We would be much more vulnerable."

*

ON that Monday night, the staff decided to page Garcia because the man shot at the park, Arturo Flores, 30, clearly appeared to be a victim of gang violence.

Behind the curtain, morphine was cutting Flores' pain. A white sheet covered his midsection, and blood pooled beneath his right knee. Flores had a job and a wife, but he'd been hanging out with homeboys when he was shot by rival gang members.

"Just relax, relax. You got your familia outside," Garcia told Flores. "I'll let them in. They're worried about you. You're going to be OK, OK? Don't cry. No, no, no. Just relax."

Flores said it felt like he was going to lose his leg. "My job," he moaned, eyes glimmering with tears.

"Forget about that!" Garcia said. "Thank God you're alive. It could have been your head. It could have been your heart."

"I'm lucky they ran out of bullets," Flores said.

Garcia arched his eyebrows in agreement.

"Thank God for that," Garcia says. "You're going to be OK. You're not paralyzed. You can always get another job. You can always do anything. It's just, your life is more important."

For the next six hours, Garcia kept an eye on visitors and stayed with Flores and his family. He took them to "Mike's Room," so dubbed by staff because he uses it to gather anxious or grieving family members.

Garcia told Flores and his family that he could overcome the wound.

"I've had my leg broke twice, my kneecap came off after a high-speed car chase," he said calmly. "A lot of broken bones. I've been stabbed three times and shot four times."

Four of Garcia's sons are in prison. Two are members of Primera Flats, Garcia's own gang; two others joined the East L.A. Dukes. One, Javier, is doing life for a gang murder.

Garcia remembers how unperturbed he was, so many years ago, when his boys joined gangs.

"I was trying to bring up my kids to be strong, to be survivors," Garcia said. "Not to let anybody tell them nothing."

His own father had been tough, with a brawler's reputation. He had been a pachuco during the zoot suit days of the 1940s. Garcia was only 5 when his father died.

His mother was equally tough. Garcia remembers how she would get into fights with other women in the neighborhood. When he joined Primera Flats at about age 10, his mother was not especially alarmed.

"It wasn't that she was happy I was in a gang," Garcia said. "But she didn't want us to be weak. If you came home crying after a fight, she'd tell you to go back out. She wanted us to be tough."

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