When his son began gushing blood from his scalp after a fall years ago, Dr. Mike Vasilomanolakis decided he didn’t have time to wait for paramedics. He would take matters into his own hands.
With a bleeding passenger and blinking emergency lights, Vasilomanolakis drove like a “maniac” to get to the closest emergency room in his area– Community Hospital.
“It was an emergency for me, but, to the people on the road, I was a nuisance,” he said. “Not only were gestures made to me, but people literally tried to block me and keep me from getting by. I don’t want to think what would have happened if I hadn’t driven an extra 15 minutes to get to the emergency room.”
Vasilomanolakis, director of cardiology and former chief of staff at Community Hospital, has been with the medical facility for 35 years. When he gave his testimony Wednesday evening to the County of Los Angeles Emergency Medical Services Commission (EMSC) about the hospital’s potential closure, his plea was to consider the likely deaths to follow as a result of having to take patients to farther emergency rooms in the city.
“Although we cannot force an institution to keep a hospital and its emergency room open, we must adhere to guidelines and give proper preparation for the community and to the fire department before they close [advanced life-support] emergency services,” Vasilomanolakis said. “This was not done.”
The EMSC conducted a public hearing at The Grand, 4101 E. Willow St., April 11 to address the planned closure of Community Hospital and the elimination of emergency medical services.
MemorialCare announced the facility’s closure in November because of an active fault line located beneath the hospital and its failure to meet the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development’s (OSHPD) seismic regulations.
March also proved to be a difficult month for Community Hospital, as MemorialCare decided to terminate the hospital’s lease within 120 days, much sooner than anticipated, and decided to divert emergency care from the facility because of a low staff ratio.
It seemed most of the major players involved with Community Hospital since its announced closure were present at the hearing that evening.
Fourth District Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, a representative from Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell’s office and Signal Hill Vice Mayor Larry Forester were a select few of the elected officials who gave testimonies to the commission. The public, which included nurses and concerned residents, also provided their input.
But, perhaps the most notable was John Bishop, CEO of the MemorialCare Health System. At the receiving end of occasional boos and sarcastic laughs during his remarks, Bishop justified MemorialCare’s decision to close the hospital.
He explained that an in-depth seismic study completed at Community Hospital in early 2016 identified a much larger active fault beneath the entire property, with the exception of the front-right portion of the area, than originally thought when MemorialCare integrated Community into its system in 2011. Two additional seismic reports in 2017, conducted with the City of Long Beach, confirmed the findings. In June 2017, OSHPD confirmed with MemoricalCare there was no feasible way for Community Hospital to become seismically compliant and continue as an acute-care hospital. In November, MemorialCare made the findings public and announced the planned closure of the facility.
“I want to emphasize that we did explore all options to continue to provide critical-care services, and we spent nearly $1 million trying to find a solution, and we simply couldn’t,” Bishop said. “This was absolutely not a business decision. It has been said by many. And, I can say that with 100-percent certainty, because I was in every discussion, and I was in every board meeting […] I know this is a very emotional time for the community.”
As a result of the announcement, Bishop said it has become increasingly challenging to maintain the depth of resources necessary to maintain Community as an acute-care medical facility. He added that MemorialCare is supporting its employees during this transition by hosting job fairs and outplacement workshops, providing retention bonuses and guaranteeing positions within MemorialCare for 114 employees, including 72 registered nurses.
To mitigate the impact of Community’s closure, Long Beach Medical Center has increased its number of observation beds and converted medical-surgical and telemetry-monitor beds. The medical center has also included additional resources.
“We have done everything we could for the community,” Bishop said, “and no one wants this hospital to stay open more than we do.”
During public remarks, there were significantly more of those in favor of brainstorming a long-term solution to keep Community as an operable medical space.
Signal Hill Vice Mayor Forester said residents in his city depend on Community for most of their medical needs.
“My whole east side, or about 6,000 residents, depend on Community Hospital,” he said. “I went to Community in January at the recommendation of my doctor. This is because Memorial is too crowded. We need those beds, we need that service. I’m here to say please help us keep Community open.”
Supervisor Hahn said closing Community was a solution that no resident in the Long Beach area wanted to hear.
“This community medical center here has served the residents for 90 years,” she said. “There have been so many people who have been served by the hospital, who have been born in this hospital. […] This hospital has deep roots within the community. It really has put the ‘community’ in Community Hospital.”
Marisol Barajas, district director with Assemblymember O’Donnell’s office, briefly detailed Assembly Bill 2591, which was introduced in February as a means to buy more time for the east-side facility. The bill seeks to extend the hospital’s seismic-compliance deadline by five years to preserve the medical services to patients. As reported by the Signal Tribune in March, the bill has to go through multiple steps to get final approval this year.
James Rexwinkel, deputy chief with the Long Beach Fire Department, responded to a question about current setbacks within the fire department since Community was placed on diversion. He said the southeast side of Long Beach, where rescues are out of service for longer periods of time as a result of transporting patients from St. Mary Medical Center to Memorial, has so far been the most impacted.
Jackie McKay, who has been a nurse at Community Hospital for 33 years, put the whole circumstance in brief and straightforward terms– medical care must be provided, regardless of who is operating Community.
“The hospital may be small, but it has a big heart, and it shows in the work that we do,” McKay said. “We just need to be allowed to do that work. If not with MemorialCare, then perhaps with someone who does care.”