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.
In the days leading up to her death, Rodriguez had sought care in the King-Harbor emergency room three times. Each time she was released after receiving prescription drugs for pain. On May 8, however, she did not leave the hospital but instead lay on the benches in front of its main entrance.
County police officers found her there and helped escort her to the emergency room. There, a triage nurse told Rodriguez that nothing could be done to help her.
Meanwhile, police ran a computer check on Rodriguez and found that she had a no-bail warrant for her arrest. As she was being taken to a squad car to be placed in custody, she became unresponsive. She died a short time later in the ER.
On Tuesday morning, Rodriguez's family gathered at a Pico Rivera memorial chapel to bid farewell to the California native, one of 13 siblings. They had delayed a funeral service for more than a month because they didn't have money to pay for it. One of her sisters arranged fundraisers, selling homemade tamales to pay the about $7,500 tab.
A wreath of red roses and white carnations with the banner "Beloved Mother and Grandmother" adorned Rodriguez's pastel pink casket.
The 30 or so family and friends in attendance listened solemnly to the priest's eulogy as a digital slideshow of pictures played on two flat-screen televisions framing the casket. Her three grown children quietly sobbed in the chapel's front row, holding two of her four grandchildren.
"We know we have the responsibility to make sure justice is done for our mother," said Edmundo Rodriguez, Edith's 25-year-old son, in an interview at the service. "We just don't want this to happen again."
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Excerpts from 911 calls
Below are excerpts from two calls to 911 dispatchers in the minutes before Edith Isabel Rodriguez's death.
1:43 a.m. May 9
Made by Jose Prado, her boyfriend, who spoke Spanish with an interpreter on the line.
Interpreter: I'm in the emergency room, my wife is dying, and the nurses don't want to help her out.
Dispatcher No. 1: OK, what do you mean she's dying? What's wrong with her?
Interpreter: She's vomiting blood.
Dispatcher: OK, and why aren't they helping her?
Interpreter: OK, they're watching her and they're not doing anything. OK, they're just watching her.
Dispatcher: OK, he needs to contact a nurse or a doctor and let them know she's vomiting blood. Paramedics are not going to pick him up or pick his wife up from a hospital because she's already at one.
Made by unidentified female patient who spoke English.
Dispatcher No. 2: What's your emergency?
Caller: There's a lady on the ground here in the emergency room at Martin Luther King and they are overlooking her, claiming that she's been discharged, and she's definitely sick and there's a guy that's ignoring her.
Dispatcher: Well, what do you want me to do for you, ma'am?
Caller: Send an ambulance out here to take her somewhere where she can get medical help.
Dispatcher: OK, you're at the hospital, ma'am. You have to contact them.
Caller: They have a problem, they won't help her.
Dispatcher: Well, you know, they're the medical professionals, OK? You're already at a hospital.
Caller: But you can still send an ambulance if that's my request.
Dispatcher: Well, if you're not pleased with the result you're getting from them, you know, we can't....
Caller: It's another patient. I'm not pleased with the result that I'm getting from 'em but it's another patient that's sicker, and did you know she's down, all down on the ground....
Dispatcher: If you have a problem with the quality of the hospital, OK, you have to contact the hospital supervisors, OK, and let them know. The police have nothing to do with that, ma'am. This line, 911, is used for emergency purposes only.
Caller: This is an emergency.
Dispatcher: Life-threatening emergencies. It is not! OK? If you want to call us back on our business line, I'll give you the number.
Source: 911 tapes