A Dose of Information : * Women's Resource Center offers answers, referrals and sometimes a shoulder to cry on.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers is a regular contributor to The Times.

The woman was frantic. Her 3-year-old grandson, who lives in Texas, had a brain tumor and was undergoing his second surgery in three months. She couldn't afford the plane fare from Los Angeles, but there was so much she didn't understand about his condition. In search of answers, she came to the Women's Resource Center at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center.

"She sat in the reading room with every book we could find about brain cancer," said Wendy Kelman, a registered nurse who manages the center. "She cried, and we talked as she pulled out pictures of her grandson. And she left with stacks of information and phone numbers of local agencies that could help her."

That's what the Women's Resource Center is all about, Kelman said--providing information, giving referrals and, sometimes, most importantly, offering a comforting shoulder to cry on.

The resource center was established just over a year ago in response to community surveys that showed that women--who make the majority of health-related decisions for themselves and their families--crave information, convenience and respect. The center, in the hospital's Women's Pavilion, aims to provide all three.

Visitors can browse through a library of hundreds of health-related books, videos and pamphlets with topics ranging from pregnancy and parenting to Alzheimer's disease and aging. Menopause, breast cancer and lupus are the most sought-after book topics, according to Kelman, and childbirth subjects lead the video hit parade.

"People want to see an actual delivery," she said. The library is also stocked with a large selection of books and information on topics geared to men, such as testicular cancer and prostate disorders. For those who need additional help, Kelman keeps a file of local health organizations, community agencies, support groups and crisis hot lines.

"Every day somebody asks me for something different, and every day we add to the library," she said. "And if our library doesn't have it, I'll find it." People who have turned to the resource center include a woman whose doctors could not agree on treatment for her severe urinary infection, a mother who was at her wits' end with a difficult teen-age daughter and an embarrassed 14-year-old suffering from her first yeast infection.

On one occasion, a woman scheduled for a cervical biopsy called for information on cervical cancer. There was just one problem. She was in Kansas on a business trip, and her biopsy was to take place immediately upon her return. So Kelman gathered reams of information on cervical cancer and sent it to the woman by overnight mail.

The resource center also sponsors the first public access computer information network in Los Angeles. Called Free-Net, the system--which was officially launched May 10--includes databases from myriad health organizations, governmental agencies, libraries, universities and medical centers.

Free-Net users also can access electronic bulletin boards, participate in on-line discussions or form support groups. For example, a bulletin board called "Doctor's Office" enables callers to pose health-related questions--anonymously if they prefer--that will be answered within 24 hours by a panel of physicians.

The public can use the computer in the resource center to reach Free-Net at no charge, and anyone with a computer and modem can access Free-Net from home, for a $10 one-time fee. Free-Net is funded by Encino-Tarzana Medical Center and the H.O.P.E. Foundation, an Encino organization that offers counseling and education for people with cancer.

"When someone is diagnosed with a medical condition, they are forced to become educated very quickly--often with inadequate resources," said H.O.P.E. co-founder Dr. Avrum Bluming, an Encino oncologist. "Usually, they go by word of mouth, which is not very reliable. Free-Net will give them a grounding in reliable information, so they can be better informed consumers."

"The books we have on the shelves will eventually be outdated," Kelman said, "but information from Free-Net is constantly updated, and the community has it at their fingertips," Kelman said.


What: Women's Resource Center.

Location: Women's Pavilion at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, 18321 Clark St., Tarzana.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment.

Price: Free.

Call: (818) 609-2280.

What: Free-Net public access computer information network.

Price: One-time $10 registration fee, includes unlimited use of system and personalized electronic mailbox.

Call: (818) 776-5000, via modem.

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