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Tape of ignored King-Harbor patient goes online

Times posts excerpts of the video, which the county had withheld.

July 02, 2008|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

It made news around the world, hard evidence of an American public hospital's indifference to a dying patient.

Edith Isabel Rodriguez writhed for 45 minutes on the floor of the emergency room lobby at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital as staffers walked past and a janitor mopped around her. Her boyfriend called 911 from a pay phone outside the hospital, pleading futilely for help.

The infamous incident in May 2007 was captured by a security camera, but the tape was actually seen by very few people. Los Angeles County has insisted for more than a year that the tape is "confidential, official information," refusing to release it to Rodriguez's family or to The Times.

This week, however, excerpts of the grainy video were sent anonymously to the newspaper and are available on The Times' website.

The public airing of the tape comes the same week as an eerily similar -- but much clearer -- surveillance tape was released showing a woman collapsing and writhing on the floor of a Brooklyn, N.Y., hospital's waiting room last month. She lay there more than an hour, as patients and security guards looked on.

According to published reports, Esmin Green had been waiting in the psychiatric emergency room of Kings County Hospital for nearly 24 hours when she fell from her seat June 19. An hour and three minutes later, a staffer who had been alerted by someone in the waiting room went up to Green, tapped her with her foot and tried to awaken her.

Both incidents, on opposite coasts, brought dismay from patients and their advocates.

"Many times, people . . . think, 'If I keel over, I'm in a hospital, people will take care of me,' " said Michael Shapiro, an expert in bioethics at the USC Gould School of Law.

But that's not necessarily true, Shapiro said. He believes such incidents happen "more often than people think."

"I think it reflects deficiencies in the human character," he said, pointing to historical examples in which bystanders stood by as tragedies unfolded.

The New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., which runs Kings County Hospital, said in a statement Tuesday that the employees involved had been suspended or fired.

"We are shocked and distressed by this situation. It is clear that some of our employees failed to act based on our compassionate standards of care," Alan D. Aviles, president of the public hospital agency, said in the statement.

Los Angeles County is still grappling with the legal and medical consequences of the King-Harbor incident. It helped precipitate the long-troubled public hospital's closure last year and spawned three lawsuits, all pending. Efforts to reopen the hospital have so far faltered.

Franklin Casco Jr., who represents Rodriguez's three children in one lawsuit, said he was disappointed and disturbed that the media had video images of Rodriguez's final moments of life before the county shared them with the family.

"My clients and I have been working very hard with the county of Los Angeles to at least view this so they can have some form of closure of their mom's death so they can put this behind them, and the county has refused," he said. "The county has refused to provide us with anything. It seems like they're attempting to cover up the whole situation."

In documents filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in May, outside lawyers representing the county argued that the videotape's release "would jeopardize the ongoing criminal investigation into the death."

The lawyers made the same argument last July in response to a subpoena by Casco. A judge has so far ruled in the county's favor.

"If something has been leaked inappropriately, I would want to know how that happened and who did it," said Roger Granbo, assistant county counsel.

"There are court orders saying this stuff should not be out there," he said.

The 10 1/2 minutes of outtakes on the Times' website cover a span from 1:01 to 1:57 a.m. on May 9, 2007.

After the King-Harbor incident, six staff members who saw or walked past Rodriguez -- including a nurse and two nursing assistants -- received letters outlining how they should behave in the future. A contract janitor who cleaned the floor around her was counseled verbally.

The triage nurse who oversaw the episode and allegedly refused requests to intervene was placed on leave and later resigned, county officials have said.

In addition to the lawsuit filed by Rodriguez's children, other suits have been filed against the county by Jose Prado, Rodriguez's boyfriend, and Linda Ruttlen, the triage nurse whom county officials have blamed for failing to help Rodriguez.

Prado is suing for infliction of emotional distress. Ruttlen is seeking damages for defamation and wrongful termination, arguing that she was effectively fired.

In an amended complaint filed this April, Ruttlen's lawyer argued that she had been helping other patients in the triage area, which at the time was "extremely busy."

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