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Girl Dies After Injection at Makeshift Clinic

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

An 18-month-old Anaheim girl died after she was given an injection of illegally imported drugs at an unlicensed back-room clinic in Tustin, where her uninsured parents had taken her, police said Wednesday.

“This was a black market medical practice,” said Tustin Police Lt. Mike Shanahan, who announced that police had arrested the store’s 23-year-old manager and confiscated pharmaceuticals labeled in Spanish.

The parents of the baby, Selene Segura Rios, were charged $37 for what a store worker told them was penicillin, the baby’s father said.

“The woman told my wife she was going to give Selene an injection of penicillin that would get her well,” said Alberto Ramirez Segura as his wife sobbed nearby. “If she didn’t get better in a day or two we were supposed to bring her back.”

Customers who arrived Wednesday at the closed Los Hermanos Gift Shop in Tustin said workers there dispensed medicine, injections and other treatments in a makeshift clinic in a back room, behind the aisles stacked high with toys, purses and knickknacks.

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The toddler, an almond-eyed baby who had recently started saying “Mami” and “Papi” and loved to watch the “Teletubbies” TV show, had been mildly ill with a low-grade fever for two days before the family sought medical care, said Segura, a 27-year-old construction worker.

“But when she began vomiting we got concerned,” he said. The family had a regular pediatrician for Selene and her 4-year-old brother, but it was 6 p.m. Monday and the doctor’s office was closed.

The illness didn’t seem to call for a trip to the emergency room, Segura said, and the parents knew a trip to the hospital would be expensive. So they took the baby to Los Hermanos, which was recommended by a friend as offering inexpensive medical services. There, the woman behind the cash register took the baby to the back and gave her an injection, Segura said.

After the couple took the baby home, he said, she seemed lethargic, and later they noticed that she was not moving and her eyes were open but not blinking. So Segura and the mother, Maria Lucia Rios, 27, took her to Anaheim Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead Monday night.

Authorities are awaiting the results of toxicology tests before they determine the cause of death.

“Whatever the cause, this is a tragic death,” Shanahan said.

Tustin police were recently alerted to the allegedly illicit medical business and “were just in the process of beginning an investigation,” Shanahan said. The tip came in an anonymous letter from a community member and was given to narcotics investigators to follow up.

The tragedy is reminiscent of a similar case last year in neighboring Santa Ana, in which 13-month-old Christopher Martinez died while being treated for the flu at a storefront clinic by a man not licensed to practice medicine. The man fled the country and has never been caught.

Police and public health experts said such cases highlight the dangers posed by unregulated clinics being operated by unlicensed personnel to treat newly arriving immigrants and the uninsured poor, who may be intimidated by or fearful of large, modern hospitals and emergency rooms.

“These are hard-working people who are paying through the nose for substandard services when they could get appropriate services for free,” said Dr. Mary Watson, director of Free Health Plan, which operates two free clinics in Santa Ana. “These people could use free clinics or community clinics that serve everybody on a sliding scale.”

After last year’s tragedy in Santa Ana, city and county officials launched a publicity effort, along with several licensed clinics and area hospitals, to encourage residents to beware of illicit operations peddling drugs or medical care from storefronts or at swap meets.

In the Tustin case, police arrested the store’s manager, Monica Bernabe, on suspicion of dispensing medicine without a license, but it was not known whether Bernabe gave the injection.

Bernabe, also described as the night manager of the store, was being held in County Jail in lieu of $150,000 bail.

Shanahan said police have just begun investigating the ownership of Los Hermanos, listed in county records as being owned by Oscar Eduardo King of Chula Vista. Although he is still listed as the owner, King on Wednesday denied knowledge of the clinic’s operation and said he had transferred the business to his sister a year ago.

Times staff writers Lisa Richardson, Janet Wilson and David Reyes and Times correspondent Crystal Carreon contributed to this story.


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