Reviving MLK Hospital

Amen Oyiboke | LA Sentinel

A sculpture by artist Lawrence Argent called "Pieces Together" sits outside the entrance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital. Photo by Amen Oyiboke.

WILLOWBROOK - On a rainy Christmas Eve in 1988, South Los Angeles native Toni Bazley was on her way home from work when she noticed a mother with two children waiting at a bus stop. “It was close to 10 o’clock and I couldn’t just drive by the family without offering a ride to them. It was Christmas Eve and no one deserved to wait in the rain,” said Bazley. She remembered asking the woman if she wanted a ride home and pulled into the closest gas station to let the small family enter her 1981 Toyota Corolla hatchback.

Bazley continued southbound on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to make a right turn on Vermont. That is when her good deed took the wrong turn. “I got into a hit-and-run accident with a drunk driver on the intersection of Vermont and Florence. The driver slammed into me so hard that my car hit a pole and folded,” said Bazley. The mother and two children were unharmed, but Bazley suffered from head injuries. “I had a pretty huge gash on my forehead that was opening up. So, I had to be rushed to the closest emergency room, which was Martin Luther King hospital.”

South Los Angeles native and MLK Hospital client Toni Bazley. Photo by Amen Oyiboke.

Martin Luther King Jr./Drew hospital was located in the city of Willowbrook on 38.5 acres of land and was one of the largest urgent care/trauma centers located in South L.A. The county hospital operated in conjunction with the Charles R. Drew Medical School.

Bazley said her experience was different than those who negatively spoke about MLK hospital during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “I didn’t have insurance at that time, so my experience at the hospital was better than what most people told me. The doctor at MLK did a wonderful job stitching me up and calming me down. I know people had horrible mentalities about the hospital because of some things that occurred there. Honestly, it affected my thoughts too until I had my accident,” said Bazley.

Opened in 1972, the MLK Hospital is reopening this June. Photo by Amen Oyiboke.

Infamously known as “Killer King,” the hospital was founded in the wake of the Watts Riots in honor of civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr. After the riots, the McCone Commission held the responsibility of exploring the root causes of the uprising and made recommendations to Congress on what some of the remedies should be to help residents of South L.A.

The commission released the 1965 McCone Report, which stated that upgrading healthcare services in South L.A. would increase the chances of overall improvement of health conditions in residents of the area, who felt neglected in resources for medical attention. In response to that report, then 8th District Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn made it his mission to bring emergency healthcare to the area.

Hahn worked on the construction of Martin Luther King Jr./Drew hospital to serve the devastated area even after voters refused to provide funding for the project. The hospital was a sign of hope and change for a city recuperating from violence and low quality medical services. The hospital then opened in 1972 to the general public and was licensed for 461 beds.

“A lot of people believed the community of Watts didn’t need a hospital, but my father believed it,” said Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Los Angeles), daughter of the late Kenneth Hahn. “Eventually, through a lot of effort my father was able to get put on the ballot to have the people of the county vote to issue money for the hospital. He always believed that everyone deserved proper healthcare services. [He thought] South L.A. shouldn’t be different from Beverly Hills when it comes to healthcare. Many of the people in the Watts area would have to travel to the county’s general hospital for emergencies and even doctors’ appointments. The lack of hospital care was really one of the biggest holes in the community.”

The information desks at the newly remodeled entrance of the MLK Hospital. Photo by Amen Oyiboke.

The healthcare needs of South L.A., also known as Service Planning Area 6, not only included emergency and trauma services, but also inpatient services, primary care and specialty services that were in high demand but in short supply, according to L.A. County’s Department of Health Services.

“When my father was there it was a really good hospital. He always made sure they had all the equipment it needed to be a good hospital,” said Hahn.

However, reports had shown that problems in patient lapses started soon after the hospital opened. In 2003, the hospital faced crises like untimely patient deaths due to neglect. In February of 2005, the hospital lost its seal of approval from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. King/Drew hospital soon became the smallest of the county’s four general hospitals decreasing down to 357 beds by 2006.

“I started working at King hospital when the name ‘Killer King’ was given to us. That name preceded the opening of the hospital,” said Samuel Shacks, former vice chancellor of pediatrics at King/Drew. “That name was not an earned name it was a given name. We had a very developed staff and good doctors who knew how to tackle the difficult area we were in.”

Shacks started his residency at King/Drew in 1977 and took on a faculty position in 1982 where he stayed at the hospital for 19 years. “Many people in the area ignored King and went outside our corridor to visit other hospitals. People did not fight to speak up about the troubles we faced servicing the area. They always thought it was better for them to not be at King,” said Shacks.

Reports of a grossly inadequate facility and improper incidents exposed by the Los Angeles Times from 2004-2007 showed a lack in general upkeep in the King/Drew Hospital. “That is what people should expect when you are the least resourced county hospital. We also had to fight for resources in a way that others could get and a lot of equipment we received came used,” said Shacks.

After the articles were published the hospital closed its doors for good in 2007.

For eight years 1.2 million residents of the area have done without an urgent care facility in their community. However, things will reportedly change this year.

After its closing, county officials chose to hand the hospital over to a non-profit chain, Martin Luther King Healthcare Corporation, to reevaluate and remodel its infrastructure. The new Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital (MLKCH) is scheduled to treat patients in late spring, according to Al Arimendez the Marketing and Communications Manager of MLKCH.

“We are a phase hospital, so we have to go through licensing and training before we can do anything. That’s why we are really careful about giving exact opening dates because it really isn’t our call. It depends on our licenser requirements,” said Arimendez.

Opening dates have been repeatedly set back and Arimendez stated that it’s due to the non-profit funding. “We are a 501c3 so our money is coming from other sources,” he said. The $284 million hospital is equipped with five levels of restructured rooms, brand new medical equipment and 16 departmental services. Hospital officials state that the new hospital will give baseline services that the area has lacked for the past eight years.

The new MLK Hospital will have fewer beds, but more resources. Photo by Amen Oyiboke.

“The new hospital is designed to meet the needs of the area it serves. The hospital will have new equipment, specialists, new physicians 24/7 and we will work with people outside of the hospital to help patients transition in and out of the facility,” said Dr. Elaine Batchlor, President and Chief Executive Officer of MLK Community Hospital.

According to Batchlor, employees of MLKCH travel out to the surrounding area to inform residents, business owners and community leaders about what the hospital will provide. “This is a community that is lacking 700 primary physicians and 1000 specialists. One of the benefits that the hospital will have is recruiting new physicians and specialists to add to the hospital and that will help the area,” said Batchlor.

But for some residents the new hospital just isn’t enough. “Where is the trauma center?” asked community activist Larry Aubrey. “A new facility is a good thing and I’m not against that. But, what happens to the people who need trauma care? We cannot continue to be satisfied with what is mediocre in South L.A. The norm is detrimental to our health,” said Aubrey. Trauma and stroke victims will have to travel to three and 10 miles away to St. Francis Medical Center or Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

Hospital officials hope that keeping the local residents aware of provided services will prevent victims needing trauma care from coming.

“Healthcare has changed a lot over the past 15 years. We are focusing on preventative wellness programs and services to help minimize rescue care. We now know that it’s important to get good care before they get to the hospital, when they get to the hospital and after they get to the hospital. This helps prevent their health deteriorating to the point where they need emergency care,” said Batchelor.

The recognizable things of the shaky past of King/Drew hospital continues to raise concern about what is to come for South L.A.’s new MLKCH healthcare services. However, residents like Bazley hope the new center brings the hope the community has been missing for eight years. “I’m happy that the black and brown community has a place to go for care. People can complain all they want, but we have to recognize that we just received a brand new facility that will help us all,” said Bazley.

This story also appeared in LA Sentinel.