Neighbors Help Nurse Clinic Back to Health

Times Staff Writer

The small wooden bench sits in the reception area of the Malibu Emergency Room, a reminder of the difficult early days at the tiny medical clinic. In those days, the bench was the waiting room.

“When we were moving and throwing stuff out, I stopped someone from tossing out the bench,” said Dr. Susan Reynolds, director of the clinic. “I told her that this thing has historic value. It was one of about three pieces of furniture in the whole office.”

The clinic, which teetered on the brink of bankruptcy a few years ago, thrives in a new home today next to the Malibu post office on Pacific Coast Highway. The leased building is just a few blocks from the original site, but it’s a far cry from the one-room office that once housed two beds and the wooden “waiting room.”

In a town filled with success stories, the emergency room has its own chapter. Reynolds agreed to run the clinic, the only emergency room on the coast between Ventura County and Santa Monica, for three months in 1982. The firm that had operated it, Janzen, Johnston & Rockwell of Santa Monica, had bailed out after sustaining heavy financial losses. It was the sixth medical group that had tried to operate in Malibu. Reynolds became the seventh.


Neighbors Step In

She borrowed $25,000 to open a new facility, which she staffed seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. The large summer crowds, and the accompanying beachside casualties kept the clinic in the black for a few months, but Reynolds needed nearly $100,000 more to cover costs during the rest of the year.

That’s when the neighbors stepped in. Reynolds decided to have a fund-raising concert for the emergency room. In Malibu, where Reynolds treated the cuts and bruises of the rich and famous, it was like Alice falling through the looking glass and landing in the pages of People magazine.

Linda Ronstadt was one of the headliners at the first concert. She was joined by residents Mick Fleetwood, Gary Busey, John Stewart, Ali MacGraw, Olivia Newton-John and Dave Mason, the former guitarist for Traffic. Other neighbors joined in.

The concert, at Pepperdine University, raised about $67,000 for the emergency room. It also raised Reynolds’ stress level. Trained as a doctor, she was not quite prepared to work as a rock promoter.

“I had to stop doctoring to run a rock concert,” Reynolds said. “It was crazy.”

More concerts followed. Locals like Johnny Carson and Rich Little chipped in. There were celebrity chili cook-offs. Reynolds and MacGraw did most of the fund-raising work for the nonprofit corporation that operated the emergency room. In 1985, resident Eddie Van Halen was the headliner at a concert at staid Pepperdine, which was like the Beach Boys performing on James Watts’ lawn.

It was the last fund-raising concert for the clinic. Reynolds, tired of dealing with lighting companies, rock star temperaments and last-minute scheduling snafus, decided to turn to a more conservative fund-raising approach. There is now an annual black-tie dinner and fashion show to raise money for the nonprofit nighttime emergency service.


“It was an interesting experience but I found that it’s impossible to be a doctor and a fund-raiser,” Reynolds said. “I am very grateful to the support that the community gave to raise money, but I finally decided that enough is enough. It helped a great deal, but it was a huge headache, and I just wanted to be a doctor. The best thing about those concerts was that I married the production manager.”

Two weeks ago, Reynolds and her staff moved the emergency room from the prefabricated trailers they had been leasing to the old E. F. Hutton building. It is nearly 10 times the size of the clinic she took over seven years ago. It is the also first time the clinic has actually had extra space.

Reynolds’ staff now includes two other doctors, a physical therapist, a paramedic and an orthopedic specialist. The clinic has an X-ray room, a small staff lounge room and three private examination rooms, as well as a separate entrance for ambulance patients. The shoestring budget has been replaced by a $500,000 annual operating allotment.

One-Night Move

The move was completed in one night when Reynolds and her staff closed the clinic at 4 p.m. and began hauling boxes and equipment down the road to the new office. The present headquarters opened at 9 a.m. the next day.

“We never missed a minute,” Reynolds said. “We were still pulling stuff out of boxes the next morning, but we treated 19 patients that day.”

To date, the clinic has treated almost 23,700 patients since Reynolds took over. The emergency room’s clients point out the transitory nature of life in Malibu. In the summer months, when thousands of people from throughout the Los Angeles Basin flock to Malibu’s famous beaches, about half of the patients who come through the clinic live outside the community. In the slower winter months, nearly 90% of those treated are local residents.


“When the sun is out and the surf is up, we just get packed,” Reynolds said. “We get everything from sprained ankles to drug overdoses to serious auto accidents.”

Because celebrities are not immune to sliced fingers, falls and fractures, many of them are treated at the clinic. Last summer, Sir Laurence Olivier was a daily visitor to the emergency room, where he came for treatment for some cuts and scrapes he suffered when he tumbled while working at a rented house in Broad Beach.

Major Supporter

Actor Matt Lattanzi, who is married to Newton-John, was bitten by a rattlesnake while hiking in a Malibu canyon 1 1/2 years ago and was taken to the clinic. He was treated at the emergency room and then airlifted by helicopter to the UCLA Medical Center. Guitarist Mason became a regular visitor when he went in nursing an infected bee sting.

Actress MacGraw, who has been a major supporter of the emergency room, began using it shortly after Reynolds took over. Reynolds treated MacGraw’s ailing mother and the actress’ son “more times than I can remember,” MacGraw said.

“In the beginning, it was very distressing to me that there was not enough community support to keep an emergency clinic operating in Malibu,” said MacGraw, who serves as the honorary mayor of Malibu. “I got involved for purely selfish reasons when I came down to the clinic (before Reynolds’ time) one day and found that it wasn’t there any longer.

24-Hour Clinic Sought

“We live in a funny town that has very specific needs. We all worked very hard to raise money to keep it going, but if it wasn’t for Susan it wouldn’t have worked. She accomplished something no one else has been able to do and the entire community benefits from it.”


Reynolds, MacGraw and other community leaders agree that they would like to see an expanded, 24-hour medical clinic in Malibu, with a team of specialists to handle all types of emergencies. The clinic is now open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. and handles all medical problems except those that require surgery or the services of a blood bank.

Although the emergency room now makes a profit, all medical services handled after 7 p.m. are funded through a charity called Nighttime Medic, which has its own board made up of community leaders. Reynolds said that although she would like to keep the clinic open around the clock, “it’s just not economically feasible yet.”

‘35 and Healthy’

“It has always been very difficult to operate a medical clinic in Malibu because the average resident here is about 35 and healthy,” Reynolds, 39, said. “I’m thinking about setting up a medical group here with a team of specialists, but that’s still in the future.”

Roy Crummer, the biggest developer in the Malibu Civic Center, who serves as Reynolds’ landlord and a member of the charity board, called the emergency room one of Malibu’s “institutions.”

“In a place that often has very little sense of community, it’s been a real plus,” he said. “Susan has been like a pioneering woman, pushing for something that was desperately needed. I wish there were a hundred more people around here like her.”

Reynolds, who recently returned to work from maternity leave, said that she is happy to leave behind the frantic, fund-raising days and concentrate on medicine.


“It’s been interesting, to say the least,” she said. “When I started, everybody told me that I wouldn’t last three months. There were a lot of times when I believed them. But I’m still here.”