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The Ailing Hospital
Lauren Sobel has seen first-hand the slow death of Doctor's Medical Center in San Pablo, which serves mostly low-income patients.

By Lauren Sobel

On my first day I discovered doctors, and student doctors alike, love chocolate milk. There it was, a refrigerator stocked full every morning and empty every afternoon.

This trove of chocolaty goodness resides in the doctor's lounge at a troubled but vital hospital headed toward closure. Outside, DMC looks every bit the part of its 1950s heritage, save for the helicopter pad, but it actually has an emergency cardiac unit and serves more than 40,000 patients each year.

With the county-funded Contra Costa Regional Medical Center 16 miles away in the more affluent Central county, DMC is invaluable to low-income, racially diverse and under-insured West-county residents. I've seen no more than four patients with private insurance during my time here, one of whom was a staff physician who fell ill. The vast majority has Medicare or Medi-Cal, complete with ever-decreasing reimbursement rates. The rest are uninsured. Yet, DMC receives no county funding.

I began just after a parcel tax, designed to reduce the hospital's $18 million annual deficit, was defeated. The indigent residents and senior citizens asked to pay more simply do not have the money.

I've heard many conversations in the doctor's lounge -- usually on my way to or from that magical refrigerator -- about the fate of the hospital. Some have been hopeful dialogues about big meetings in Sacramento and Chevron's deep pockets. Yet in my short time here, full wards have closed and a plan to turn the hospital into a free-standing emergency room was announced. The ER stopped accepting ambulances and the census was capped at 50 because the hospital is no place for physicians and nurses seeking job stability.

The cardiac unit is next to go. Its closure will be disproportionately fatal. The chocolate milk is dwindling too: the refrigerator has been without for three days now.

With a Perspective, I'm Lauren Sobel.

Lauren Sobel is a third-year medical and public health student at Touro University in Vallejo and just finished her internal medicine rotation at Doctor's Medical Center in San Pablo.

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