State investigating poisoning victim’s death at Olive View

Times Staff Writers

State health regulators are investigating the treatment of a poison victim who died at a Los Angeles County public hospital in Sylmar this month after a police supervisor refused to send officers to get an antidote, authorities said Friday.

An emergency supply of medication at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center did not include enough vials of the antidote to treat Donald Taylor, 51, when he was rushed to the hospital in the early hours of Oct. 1 after eating highly toxic oleander leaves.

Hospital employees asked the county Office of Public Safety for help, in the belief that officers could use their siren-equipped patrol car to transport the medication faster. When the police supervisor declined, another employee was sent to bring back the antidote from Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, about three miles away in Mission Hills, according to a memo to the county Board of Supervisors in response to questions from The Times. It took the employee 50 minutes, and Taylor died an hour after the employee returned.


Hospitals are required to inform the state about any unusual occurrence at their facilities, but Olive View did not report Taylor’s death to the state until The Times began asking about the incident earlier this week. County officials blamed the delay on confusion over new state reporting guidelines.

Michael Wilson, a spokesman for the county Department of Health Services, said state regulators informed the county they probably would find the hospital’s treatment deficient.

The probe follows a series of problems cited by regulators this year over care at Olive View, one of four county hospitals. Since January, Olive View has been cited five times.

Last week, the California Department of Public Health faulted the hospital for not following safety procedures when a patient’s oxygen mask caught fire during surgery, burning the patient’s face. The patient suffered first- and second-degree burns and was moved to the intensive care unit before being transferred to another hospital for burn treatment.

Among other serious citations, the state said the hospital failed to assign enough on-duty nurses to its psychiatric units and failed to properly care for a disabled patient who had complained she was manhandled by a nursing assistant.

None of the other county hospitals has drawn as many citations this year as Olive View. The county’s fifth hospital, Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, was the subject of numerous, serious medical lapses and closed in August after failing for years to meet federal patient care standards.


Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes Olive View, called for a full investigation into Taylor’s death, adding that the police supervisor should be fired and prosecuted if facts show he was insubordinate in refusing to help get the medication.

Antonovich said he was concerned about the other lapses and that he had not been told about Olive View’s other state citations this year. But he drew a distinction between Olive View’s recent problems and the large-scale deficiencies state investigators identified at King-Harbor.

“It isn’t a pattern where patients are losing their lives. It’s a pattern that indicates that they are correctable,” he said.

Gretchen McGinley, Olive View’s acting chief executive, said in a statement Friday that the hospital had rarely experienced problems with patient care and is taking action to prevent similar episodes.

Taylor’s niece, Demetrice Joseph, said she spoke with a county coroner’s official and a physician who treated her uncle at Olive View but neither told her about the problems in obtaining enough antidote. She said she learned about the delay from a Times reporter.

“I don’t understand that. I really don’t. What was the holdup?” Joseph said. “Somebody needs to give me some answers.”


Coroner’s officials have yet to determine how Taylor died and said toxicology tests are pending.

An ambulance was called to Taylor’s Sylmar home about 12:30 a.m. Oct. 1. Taylor, a clerk at the county’s welfare agency, told paramedics he had ingested oleander leaves but did not say how many or why, a coroner’s spokesman said.

At Olive View, a doctor prescribed 10 vials of Digibind, an antidote. But the hospital’s pharmacy, as usual, had closed at midnight and an emergency medicine supply, kept in a night locker, had only three vials of Digibind, according to the memo from the county health department’s senior medical director, Dr. Robert Splawn.

An on-call pharmacist who responds to emergencies at the hospital was never contacted, the memo said. Instead, hospital staff sought help from nearby hospitals and found more Digibind at Holy Cross.

The county police “watch commander on duty was asked several times to pick up the additional units, but refused to do so,” Splawn wrote.

While a hospital employee left to get the antidote, medical staff continued trying to resuscitate Taylor, who had gone into cardiac arrest soon after arriving. The employee returned with the medication and the extra doses were given to Taylor before he died.


County Police Bureau Chief Victor Turner, who oversees officers assigned to county hospitals, declined to comment, saying his agency is investigating the incident.

The day after Taylor’s death, the hospital increased its emergency supply of Digibind to 20 vials, and plans are underway to keep the pharmacy open 24 hours a day.