Memories Of King/Drew Hospital: Life And Blood Of South L.A.
Louise Webb has lived in Watts all her life. She grew up, went to school, and raised her kids here. It is her home and community. But Watts is missing something: a trauma unit and emergency room.
When her son, Kevin, hurt his shoulder playing football, Webb spent the day at a clinic called Watts Health Center. Webb first came to the clinic when she was 5 years old.
"They've been good to my family, since I was a little girl," Webb said. "I have kids and from when they were babies, I take them here for everything. They’re teenagers now, so they've been good to my family."
Kevin sat on a park bench in front of her, huddled up in a large black hoodie and talked about the role the closed hospital played in her life.
Webb is 42 years old. She stood with her arms crossed, leaning against a pole. She wore tight jeans with a large, white rhinestone belt buckle. Her sweatshirt had a bedazzled red heart across the front. Her eyebrows were carefully penciled in, delicately outlining deep eyes. In her lifetime in Watts, she has seen the need for a trauma center in Watts first hand.
The clinic and others like it have provided the people of Watts with most of their health care needs since Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, which opened its doors in the wake of the 1965 Watts Riot, closed three years ago. The hospital aimed to address the lack of access to health care in the underserved neighborhood. King-Drew shut down following an appalling track record for medical malpractice, which earned the hospital the nickname "Killer King."
Last year, the University of California and Los Angeles County formed a private, nonprofit corporation to reopen the hospital. The plan remains on track to open a 40-bed hospital by 2013.
Until then, people in need of emergency care will have to commute.
For a neighborhood like Watts, a trauma center should be mandatory. The area sees so many shootings and stabbings, before the hospital closed the army would train doctors in its ER to prepare them for war zones.
"We live in a bad neighborhood," Webb said. "It's everywhere, gang violence is everywhere, it's not going to stop. This is a neighborhood that needs a good trauma center."
Despite its "Killer King" reputation, Webb thought MLK Hospital had a very good trauma unit and emergency room. Now when people are shot or stabbed, they must travel to another hospital, which can delay proper care for valuable minutes.
"I know many people where Martin Luther King saved their lives," said Webb. "And now I know lots of people who didn't make it to another hospital in time and died."
The hospital's closing has also created a bureaucratic mess for some of its former patients.
Webb's mother, Myrtle Jones, has colon cancer. In 2001, Jones had a section of her large intestine there. The doctors attached a colostomy bag, a pouch that is sutured in place to the side of the stomach and collects feces.
The doctors told Jones she had five years to live.
When five years came and went and Jones still felt fine, she decided she wanted to get surgery to remove the colostomy bag. With the hospital closed, she went to Long Beach Memorial Hospital. They told Jones that because of her insurance, Medi-Cal, she had to go back to the doctor that did the procedure.
One problem: Jones has no idea who or where that doctor is. She has called the hospital and the University of California countless times, and no one knows were to locate her old medical records.
Jones has worn this bag for nine years. And she hates it.
"It’s smelly and uncomfortable and sometimes sprays," said Webb. "Sometimes it bursts and [Jones] needs to run to the bathroom."
Webb's path has crossed with the hospital several times. When she was 18 years old, Webb got a job doing janitorial things around the hospital as part of General Relief, a county program that places disadvantaged people in jobs.
She only worked there for a month. She couldn't stand seeing the blood of her neighbors.
"I saw the drug babies and stuff it just got to me, I couldn't take it no more," she said. "Working on the second floor, that’s where the babies was, it was too touching. In the end, when I had to clean up the emergency room and stuff and see where all the blood from gunshots or people getting cut or stabbed, seeing all that blood just got to me. I just quit, I didn't come back."
Webb was not immune from the gang violence she saw when she worked there. In 2004, the hospital was there for Webb when she needed it.
Webb was in the passenger's seat of her sister's car driving home from a night of dancing and drinks at a club in Hollywood. As they pulled up to a light, Webb heard a noise so loud she felt it. Instinctively, she turned her head to see – and suddenly she couldn’t see anything. Her eyes felt like fire.
A stray bullet had hit the passenger window. As soon as Webb looked, shattered glass embedded itself into her eyes. An ambulance took Webb to MLK Hospital. Her eyes were searing.
"You can't help but blink your eyes and as I was blinking the glass was sticking to my eyelids and going deeper," said Webb.
The hospital rinsed out her eyes and kept her until morning. Webb didn't lose her vision and considers herself lucky to have had the hospital so close. She said they did a fantastic job.
"They were there for me," she said.
Webb also saw the hospital in action for her brother. In the mid-'90s, he was coming home from his girlfriend's house. Two guys rolled up next to him and opened fire. He was shot 24 times.
The ambulance rushed him to MLK.
"They did their best to revive him," said Webb. "He was still breathing when he arrived at the hospital. Breathing, but it was too late."
He had found out the day before that his girlfriend was pregnant. He died on his 18th birthday.
"Actually, if he would have lived, he probably would have been paralyzed," said Webb. "He got shot so many times he would have been paralyzed. If they would have saved him."
Webb believes MLK did everything it could have done. They tried their best.
"It wasn’t worth shutting down," she said somberly. "It really wasn’t."
Webb thinks the hospital's mistakes were emphasized over the successes. And when it closed, it hurt the community.
"I heard about people dying, I thought that was kinda sad that people was losing their lives through employees mistakes," she said. "But it also saved a lot of people's lives. They did their best to save people. They lost lives and they saved lives."
When the hospital closed, Webb was upset. She felt like she was losing a piece of her city.
"The hospital represents those people [in Watts]," said Webb. "We need a lot of things to build the community. We don't need things taken away."
Webb is excited about the hospital's planned reopening. She would like to see many of the same doctors and nurses, especially in the emergency and trauma units, but knows it isn't likely. She implicitly trusts the UC to choose the most qualified staff. As Webb sees it, all of the past problems revolved around a subpar staff. If that gets fixed, there should be no serious problems with the new hospital.
Until it reopens, Webb says the Watts Health Center can fulfill all her health care needs. As long as it isn't an emergency.