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Protesters Set Up Triage to Save Trauma Center

Times Staff Writer

The movement to save the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center’s trauma unit began hours after county supervisors announced the proposed closure last week -- part spontaneous outrage, part calculated planning by veteran activists.

Steve Harvey, the popular morning radio host, heard about the plan and said he immediately felt outrage that Los Angeles County would close such a vital service to poor residents. During the next week, he would make the issue a staple of his show, taking calls from listeners and urging the public to call supervisors to complain.

“This ain’t a color issue. This ain’t a political issue,” Harvey said. “This is about saving human beings’ lives.”

At the same time, a disparate collection of community groups began to mobilize. Members lighted up the phone lines formulating a quick strategy to get people together before the Board of Supervisors would hold its first public discussion on the issue the following Tuesday. Within 24 hours, they were holding candlelight vigils at the hospital and sponsoring “house meetings” at homes to spread the word.

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The groups included the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, the California Nurses Assn., Clergy and Laity for Economic Justice, and AGENDA, which stands for Action Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternative.

Officials from AGENDA had just come off a victory against Wal-Mart’s plan to build a superstore in Inglewood. Other groups lobbying to keep the trauma unit open were involved in the Los Angeles transit strike last year and in the office-tower janitors strike several years ago.

“I think that eventually if we don’t get together and organize and hold these officials accountable, the whole hospital will be closed down,” said Esperanza Martinez, an AGENDA organizer. “South L.A. is an epicenter of poverty. There’s so much violence -- so many people are dying of gunshot wounds here.... This hospital is a huge resource for us.”

Protesters said the nearly 2,000 trauma patients who are treated at King/Drew every year would be diverted to other overloaded hospitals, wasting precious time, further straining the trauma-care system and possibly costing lives.

County officials believe that closing the unit is the only way to save the rest of the hospital. Shutting down such a complex unit at King/Drew, they say, will allow healthcare officials to reallocate resources to other crucial hospital functions and to reorganize the institution.

Troubled for decades, the county-owned hospital in Willowbrook, just south of Watts, has been reeling in the last year from lapses in patient care, including several that contributed to patient deaths, according to regulators. Adding to the problems, accreditors have ordered the private university that trains doctors at King/Drew to close three of its programs, including surgery.

Supporters of the trauma unit’s closure said the protesters have good intentions but simply don’t understand how dire the conditions at King/Drew are.

“When people say people will die if the county does what it’s proposing to do, the next half of that sentence is people will die if the county doesn’t do what it’s proposing to do,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. “And they will keep dying unless there is a change.”

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In its first week, the activist coalition succeeded in organizing several rallies and meetings, including the demonstration on the steps of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, where the Steve Harvey show broadcast earlier this week.

One supervisor, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who represents the area King/Drew serves, has switched from supporting the closure to opposing it. But the other supervisors appear to remain in favor. At Tuesday’s meeting, the board voted 3 to 1 to move forward with a public hearing on the matter. (Burke voted against the motion, and Supervisor Don Knabe was absent.)

Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said he was not surprised that King/Drew had emerged as a rallying cry for activist groups. Activists are always looking for issues that will resonate with residents, Guerra said, and the hospital concerns tap into a big one: healthcare.

“When you poll the public, the economy, public safety and education are routinely at the top of the list of priorities,” he said. “But increasingly you have seen health move up the list of priorities at the national, state and local levels because of the impact it has on the individual. It used to only impact sick and old people, but now we are all impacted because of rising premiums, lack of coverage. King/Drew Medical Center strikes right at this emerging issue.”

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The week of organizing came to a head at Tuesday’s rally before the Board of Supervisors meeting, which drew more than 200 people. Although that is considered a sizable crowd, it was significantly smaller than the estimated 750 people who gathered to protest the county’s plan to remove a cross from the county seal.

The activists did much to orchestrate the show of support for the trauma center. Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union shipped several busloads of workers and community members from King/Drew to take part in the protest. Before leaving the hospital, many tore up white sheets and wore them as symbolic bandages.

They used magic markers, lipstick or whatever was handy to color the bandages and make them appear bloody.

Harvey, wearing a fedora, pumped up the crowd with jokes and a bass-heavy soundtrack.

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“All of you who work in offices: Fax somebody. Make some noise,” said Harvey, urging his listeners to contact their Los Angeles County supervisor. “But be smart.... You can write: ‘Save King Drew Hospital.’ Then in small print, write: ‘Or else.’ Or, ‘You like your job, don’t you?’ ”

Harvey, whose show is broadcast on KJLH-FM (102.3), has taken local causes on the air before. During the bus strike, he spoke in favor of striking bus drivers and urged a speedy resolution for the sake of poor commuters around the city. He often criticizes the war in Iraq in stinging on-air quips. He speaks about the importance of education and an up-from-the-bootstraps self-reliance for the poor.

But Harvey said that he has never spoken on a topic that has elicited such a visceral response from his listeners, who have expressed intense anger at the Board of Supervisors -- even with Burke despite her change of heart.

“They’ve lost their minds,” said one female listener of the show. “I don’t know what Yvonne Burke is thinking. She’s from the ‘hood!”

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“These cuts won’t heal,” said another listener, a South L.A. man.

At one point during the rally, Burke sat down opposite Harvey to be interviewed.

Bob Marley’s anthem, “Get Up, Stand Up” blared in the background as a man shouted out: “Beat ‘em up, Steve!”

But for all his early bluster, Harvey was congenial, if insistent. He asked Burke how the hospital had fallen so low in the eyes of regulators and whether county cutbacks were to blame. Burke responded that mismanagement at the hospital was to blame, not a lack of money. Harvey asked whether closing the trauma center would eventually result in the closure of the entire hospital. Burke said only the trauma center would be closed -- in order to save the rest of the hospital.

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At that, the crowd booed.

“You can boo me if you want to,” Burke said. “I’ve only got one thing I want to do, and that’s save King/Drew.”


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