"There's a lot of violence in the world today, especially in this community," said Lee Russell, 40, yanking up his shirt to display rope-like scars from a November 2003 shooting and stabbing. He praised the King/Drew doctors and nurses, saying that if the trauma center hadn't been nearby, "I would be dead . I'm their walking miracle."
Last month, the Board of Supervisors voted to close the trauma unit to focus on fixing the rest of King/Drew, which like other county hospitals treats patients regardless of insurance status. In September, the board agreed to hire private turnaround consultants for $13.2 million. The supervisors' actions were their strongest to date, brought about only by threats to King/Drew's federal funding and national accreditation.
The trauma unit's closure, especially, drew residents' ire. "Don't disrespect or underestimate our community," read a banner hung last month at a rally of more than 1,000 hospital supporters.
King/Drew has become the "proxy for an entire community's identity," said Los Angeles civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who is African American.
That creates tension between those who see the hospital in strictly medical terms and those who see it as an embodiment of their dreams for racial self-determination.
"You're talking about the fact that the nurses weren't trained to use monitors," Rice said, "and they're going back to '60s Watts."
Community of grief
Over the years, King/Drew has created another community, one bound by a common grief.
Jereatha Thomas belongs to it. She rushed her 27-year-old daughter, Demetria, to King/Drew in June 2003.
In the emergency room, printouts from three electrocardiograms stated plainly that Demetria Thomas had suffered a massive heart attack. Two labeled it "acute," the other "extensive."
No one acted on the findings for more than 10 hours, as doctors pursued other theories. By the time a cardiologist pointed out the obvious, it was too late, said two experts who reviewed her medical records for The Times.
Two days later, shortly after being transferred to Harbor- UCLA Medical Center for more specialized care, Demetria died.
Jereatha Thomas has never recovered. She moved out of the house she shared with Demetria, unable to live with the memories. She works three jobs until she's too tired to think.
"Since the time my daughter passed away, people have come up to me and said, 'My aunt, my uncle, my friend died the same way,' " Thomas said. "It was a lesson to be learned for me. I would never go back to King. Never, ever."
Thomas decided to hold the hospital accountable in the only way she knew how: She sued. Her case is pending.
Every hospital makes mistakes, some of them fatal. Filing a lawsuit is one of the few recourses patients and their families have when something goes wrong. But taken together, the malpractice cases involving King/Drew portray a place where things often go wrong — sometimes in the same way, over and over.
King/Drew spent $20.1 million on malpractice payouts during fiscal years 1999 to 2003, an extraordinary sum for a public hospital its size in California. Adjusting for the number of patients the hospital saw, that figure is more than at any of the state's other public hospitals or the University of California medical centers.
Even County-USC Medical Center, which is three times larger and not without troubles of its own, spent less. (King/Drew's payouts cannot be compared to those at public hospitals outside the state, because California has strict limits on malpractice damages.)