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King hospital plan nurtures a fragile hope

Hope and despair have always resided side by side in South Los Angeles, and the hospital complex named for Martin Luther King Jr. has evinced both. It was forced into existence in the tense aftermath of the Watts riots, and nothing has been easy since.

Last week, two years after decades of indignities against patients culminated in the closure of its inpatient units and emergency room -- limiting it to being, essentially, a large clinic -- state and county officials announced a new agreement that would reopen the hospital in 2012. Much remains uncertain about the tentative deal, but despite well-deserved reasons for skepticism, hope flickers.

Ollie Durant Jones, who has lived in the hospital’s shadow since 1991, said she had no problems on her visits to King. But, she allowed with some understatement, “a lot of things went on over there.”

“It will be better,” she said of the new incarnation. Most important, she said, the seriously ill would be spared the long rides to treatment that they now endure. “Anything happens,” she said of the distant options now, “and you might not make it that far.”

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That was precisely the argument for the original hospital. Its presence was meant to allay the grievous health difficulties of area residents, who by most measures are both sicker and less served by the medical establishment than residents elsewhere in Los Angeles County. And it was meant to shine as a visible sign of concern by the county for the African Americans who then dominated the area.

By all accounts the hospital failed miserably at the former task, and its long decline managed to complicate the latter as well.

As state and county officials now work to formalize the deal, some questions remain unanswerable: Will a new hospital succeed where the old one failed, actually improving the health of South Los Angeles? And will the presence of a hospital honoring a civil rights giant mean as much to a community that is now mostly Latino?

Much of the impetus for the hospital came from the irrepressible Kenneth Hahn, the longtime county supervisor who represented the area. His effort gained gravitas when the state commission set up to determine the cause of the Watts riots cited lack of healthcare as an underlying cause. There was a convenient locale, too -- the Palm Lane housing project on 121st Street in Willowbrook, just south of Watts, where by a contract quirk the land was cheap, and where the existing residents lacked the heft to object to their forced departure.

From 1966, when the land was purchased, to 1972, when the six-story hospital opened, the facility morphed from Southeast General Hospital to Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital. Later, in an alliance with the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science, it would become King/Drew Medical Center. It was not long, however, before hope again began to give way to despair.

In 1989, and again in 2004, the Times published investigations of the hospital that some in the neighborhood had begun to call “Killer King.” Each featured stories of patients given the wrong drugs or none at all, operated on for the wrong things or left to die, of doctors and nurses and support staff who erred and an administration that seemed unable to change the trajectory.

Each crisis was followed by threats to withdraw funding and assorted community protests until, in 2007, the ER and inpatient units were closed.

Despite the persistent problems with care, “when it closed down it was such a huge kick in the stomach to the community of Watts,” said Janice Hahn, Kenny Hahn’s daughter and a Los Angeles council member. “It felt to them like ‘you gave it to us and now you took it away, and would you really have done that in another community, if it was Torrance or Beverly Hills or Westwood?’ ”

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Worsening the problem, King/Drew was only one of several hospitals in the area to close, giving fewer and fewer options to residents already pinched by a lack of insurance and transportation. According to Jim Lott, the executive vice president of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California, there is less than one hospital bed for every 1,000 South Los Angeles residents, half the proportion countywide and less than a third of the national average.

Health statistics bear out that residents are in serious need. According to a study by Community Health Councils, South Los Angeles residents are far more likely than others in the county to have heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer and other maladies. And there are few to treat their illnesses: The proportion of cardiologists is less than half that of the county overall, for example.

Those working to develop the new hospital are well aware that they will not only have to rebuild its physical plant but also its reputation and its connection to a rapidly changing community.

“The hope is to return the hospital, to resurrect it back to the community,” said Yolanda Vera, a longtime advocate for healthcare access who recently went to work for Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a key supporter of the deal. It was important, she said, “to extend the message to the community that we are going to be focused on quality.”

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“It really is this kind of galvanizing moment in some ways. It’s almost like a phoenix.”

The hospital -- or, as it is now called, the Multi-service Ambulatory Care Center -- still rises as sharply as it always did above a tableau of older bungalows, as if promising better things ahead.

Inside, however, change is evident.

Under the oil portrait of Martin Luther King that dominates the lobby sit four patients, all conversing in Spanish. A directory on a nearby wall offers a list of ghosts: Pediatrics ICU, fifth floor. Surgery ICU, third floor. Critical-care unit, fourth floor. Beyond the heavy hospital doors on four are offices and stations, all empty and silent until out of a door emerges a hospital employee.

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“This unit is closed, ma’am,” he says gently, as if apologizing.

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cathleen.decker@latimes.com

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Each Sunday, The Week examines one or more of the previous week’s major stories and their implications for our state or our region.


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