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A reunion where trauma and recovery intersect

Former patients go back to County-USC to say thanks to the people who saved them.

May 02, 2010|By Alexandra Zavis

Christina Velasquez had just settled down to a plate of snacks in a conference room festooned with balloons when a doctor in a white coat planted a kiss on the 11-year-old's head.

"This is a very special person," said Dr. Demetrios Demetriades, director of trauma at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. "She was in the intensive care unit for many weeks. At one point we thought we nearly lost her, but here she is, happy and beautiful. . . . She's a miracle."

Christina, who lost a lung in 2006 car accident, reached up to give Demetriades a hug.

"I want to be a doctor too," said Christina, who lives in Baldwin Park.

There were many happy reunions Saturday, when the hospital hosted a celebration for about 35 trauma survivors and their families.

For the doctors and nurses, some of whom turned up in scrubs, it was a chance to reconnect with some of the thousands of trauma patients treated at the hospital each year.

"A lot of our patients touch us in ways that we really don't realize until after they leave us, and we find ourselves wondering what ever happened to them," said trauma surgeon Dr. Lydia Lam, who organized the event. "It's just the coolest thing to see patients come back."

Dr. Kenji Inaba almost didn't recognize 27-year-old Brian Fields, who spent more than a month in his intensive care unit after crashing his motorcycle in July 2008.

When Fields left the unit, he was barely conscious. But on Saturday, he was walking and chatting with his doctor as if nothing had happened.

"So many of our patients do not do well. They come in with these irreparable damages," Inaba said. "When you see them doing well, it makes it all worthwhile."

For the patients and families, it was a chance to say thank you to those who cared for them.

"If it wasn't for them, our son would be dead," said Fields' mother, Rose, of Whittier.

Many families develop close ties with the doctors and nurses in the weeks spent at a loved one's bedside.

Rose Whittier refused to go home, said her husband, Eddie. Soon she was translating for the mostly English-speaking staff and other families who only spoke Spanish. But when her son was discharged, they lost touch.

"It's so nice to see all these people again," she said.

The annual reunion, now in its third iteration, was the idea of Dr. D.J. Green, a Navy surgeon preparing to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan.

"When we take care of patients in this hospital, it is in the phase when they are still in the woods and they might die," Green said. "We don't really see them back [or know] their ultimate outcome. . . . It leaves this void."

Some staff members dropped by between surgeries to look through the posters displayed around the room featuring pictures and messages from former patients.

During a brief presentation, each patient stood up to receive applause and a reunion T-shirt. There were also teddy bears for the youngest.

Samantha Palumbo, a 21-year-old former Miss California Junior National Teenager, leaned on her mother as she walked to the podium. When she turned 16, her parents gave her a new car.

Three weeks later, she was in a crash that left her with a gaping hole in her skull.

"When we arrived here that night, they let us know that they didn't expect her to make it through the night," said her mother, Diana.

Using sign language, her daughter interrupted: "But I'm here now."

Her mother translated for the room and added: "I thank these doctors from the bottom of my heart."

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and representatives of Supervisor Gloria Molina and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles) dropped by to add their thanks to the hospital staff, patients and families.

Not every patient accepts the invitation to return. Ruth Mira, 47, of Burbank wasn't sure she could face it. She lost a leg when she tumbled from a six-story parking structure a year ago and is learning to walk with a prosthesis. But she said her husband encouraged her.

At first, Mira said, she was frustrated when she couldn't recognize the doctors and nurses her husband knew so well. But then, she said, she started to draw inspiration from the other patients.

Lam hopes the experience is helpful to patients like Mira.

"Hopefully their last impression of us is happy," she said.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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