'Over my dead body'

"I’ll tell you this: That hospital will be closed over my dead body. I want to be clear on that."
Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, supervisor (Bob Chamberlin / LAT)

Los Angeles County supervisors sharply rebuked their health department chief during a rancorous public debate Tuesday and ordered him to physically move his office to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

"Park yourself there," Supervisor Gloria Molina directed Dr. Thomas Garthwaite during one of many heated exchanges at the weekly board meeting. "Take your schedule. Tear it up and spend every moment that you're working for us working on solving the crisis."

The Board of Supervisors directed Garthwaite to hire even more outside doctors and nurses to roam the hallways to protect patients from the types of medical mishaps that have plagued the public hospital for the last 21 months. Board members also turned on one another in their frustration over the hospital's persistent troubles.

At one point, Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes King/Drew, loudly proclaimed that she would not allow the hospital to shut down, no matter how bad its problems.

She reminded her colleagues that there weren't many options for healthcare in the Watts area before King/Drew's opening in 1972 and that there weren't many now.

"I'll tell you this: That hospital will be closed over my dead body," Burke said. "I want to be clear on that."

Molina, the board chairwoman, interrupted, "That is not a good statement."

"That is a true statement," Burke replied.

When his turn came, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said: "The only dead bodies I'm concerned about are the dead bodies that we're seeing here."

At another point, Molina said, "If my mother needed to be hospitalized, and this is where they were taking her, I would get there as quick as possible and get her the hell out of there."

Tuesday's tense wrangling over King/Drew came the day after the Department of Health Services informed the board of two more problematic deaths at the hospital. A week earlier, health officials reported three other such deaths to the board.

All five followed mistakes by King/Drew's nurses and doctors, county officials said.

In addition to directing Garthwaite to spend his days at the hospital, the board told the health department to:

•  Immediately begin hiring outside intensive-care doctors to monitor the treatment of patients.

•  Recruit expert nurses to serve as "foot patrols" in King/Drew's wards to ensure that bedside nurses were properly caring for their patients.

•  Require that every invasive procedure and diagnostic test done by doctor trainees at King/Drew be directly supervised by a senior physician. Virtually all the recent deaths involved poor oversight of medical residents.

As evidence of their rising — and frequently expressed — sense of helplessness, the supervisors took these three proposed solutions from a speaker addressing the board: Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California.

"I can't tell you how effective that sounds for me!" Molina said as soon as Lott had listed his ideas. She directed staff to immediately add them to a pending motion.

The board also directed the department to examine whether the county should sever its contract with the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, which it pays to train doctors at the hospital.