King-Harbor dilemma is painfully personal

Times Staff Writers

Two years ago, Antonio Calzada took his wife to the emergency room at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital after she complained of back pain.

It took two weeks for doctors to determine she had pancreatic cancer, he said. He felt the staff was inattentive and indifferent to her pain.

Two weeks later, she was transferred to another hospital, and about two weeks after that, she died.


“Now all I feel is distrust,” said Calzada, 45.

Yet, on Saturday morning, he was back at King-Harbor, this time pushing his 72-year-old mother in a wheelchair for a diabetes checkup.

“Where else are we going to go?” he asked.

Such is the dilemma many of the people served by King-Harbor face. Within days, Los Angeles County supervisors may initiate steps to shutter the troubled public hospital in Willowbrook, south of Watts, and residents say they cannot afford to lose it, despite its many flaws and sometimes deadly mistakes.

Many of King-Harbor’s patients are poor and uninsured; they say it would be a burden to travel to a more distant hospital -- in Torrance or Downey, for example.

In their struggle to find healthcare, they say, they have little choice but to accept King-Harbor’s services, even after such highly publicized incidents as the death in May of 43-year-old Edith Isabel Rodriguez, who had been ignored by staff as she writhed in pain on the emergency room lobby’s floor.

“It’s the only place we can go, since I don’t have insurance,” said Aundre Van, 25, as he headed into the hospital Saturday morning to have his back examined after a car accident. “I’ve been coming here pretty much all my life. I know what they did” to Rodriguez “was horrible, but this community is just going to suffer more if this place closes.”

The county Board of Supervisors has grappled for years with arguments from the community that sometimes flawed care is better than no care. But faced with the threat of having the state revoke the hospital’s license, Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Mike Antonovich say it is better to begin now in preparing the county healthcare system for a King-Harbor closure. The three, a board majority, say they are ready to vote Tuesday to get started.


Supervisor Don Knabe declined to comment and Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke did not return phone calls seeking comment Saturday.

In addition to the threat from the state, King-Harbor has been deemed out of compliance with minimum federal standards for patient care since January 2004.

County health officials have drawn up a plan for implementation should the hospital fail an upcoming federal inspection. The plan calls for redirecting ambulances to other facilities and adding beds to two other county hospitals, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance and Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey. Although King-Harbor would cease inpatient services and close its emergency room, outpatient clinics would remain open.

The potential demise of the hospital disheartens Warren Cormier. He said he cried when he learned about Rodriguez, the woman who died after writhing on the floor in May. The facility, formerly King/Drew, had been considered a symbol of promise and racial justice when it was founded in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots.

“It saddens me so much,” said Cormier, 72, visiting his daughter, who had surgery Friday for gallstones. “Its been here so long. This town will die without this hospital.”

Cormier, a retired civil engineer, said closure would affect not just health services but also businesses across the region that rely on serving the hospital.


“The horror stories are there, but you have to look at the big picture,” said Cormier, of Compton. “I’d still want it to remain open. They just need better oversight.”

Brannan Avery, a 31-year-old cosmetology student from Long Beach, sat in the emergency room waiting area Saturday to have a toothache checked and reflected on years of experiences at the hospital.

“I was shot twice, and I was brought here,” Avery said. “My dad passed here. I was born here. I think steps should be taken, but I don’t think the whole hospital should close. That would create an even bigger problem in the long run.”

Many visitors to the hospital Saturday said they believed the facility could be saved if only the bad employees were weeded out.

“For me, it’s not the hospital that’s the problem,” said Calzada, the man whose wife died of pancreatic cancer. “It’s there, and it’s not going to move. What they need to do is change the personnel. The people here have got to change their attitude.”

Van, the patient who had hurt his back, said he detected a change in attitude since the last time he visited, before Rodriguez’s death was reported.


“It only took two hours today,” he said after getting a prescription for painkillers. “It usually takes six hours.”

Some patients think the staff should not take all the blame. Thomas Love, heading in for a heart exam, wondered how much race and poverty had to do with King-Harbor’s failings.

“If this place was on the Westside, you’d have the governor and Hollywood stars coming in pushing for change a long time ago,” said Love, 44, of Athens.

He said he was reluctant to visit the hospital Saturday because he wasn’t confident he would receive adequate care. “This place is scary. They’re supposed to have trained professionals.”

Love was carrying a newspaper he bought specifically to read about the potential closure. He’s sentimental about King-Harbor because his mother was a nurse there 25 years. Yet the reason he was willing to overlook its failings was a practical one.

Most likely, he said, someone in the neighborhood would be injured Saturday night. “And they have no choice but to come here. So either you stay out there and die on the street or come here and take your chances.”