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In South Los Angeles, a reborn hospital takes aim at chronic disease epidemic

In South Los Angeles, a reborn hospital takes aim at chronic disease epidemic

Picture of Merdies Hayes
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Preventative care is a vital component of good health. With the advent of the Affordable Care Act and Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange, tens of thousands of Southern California residents have taken advantage of the opportunity to see a physician and ward off or manage many ailments.

For my 2017 California Fellowship project, I plan on discussing some of the health concerns particularly relevant to African-Americans, and how Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Watts is attempting to address them. Many of the residents in this area of South Los Angeles have been underserved in several “quality of life” areas, notably in access to first-rate health care. The old hospital was rife with mismanagement, underfunding, overcrowding, and poor oversight from county authorities. It lost its accreditation and had to close after more than four decades.

The hospital has reopened and is operating under new management for just over a year, and by most indications, its vastly improved services are being utilized by residents in new ways, specifically in the early diagnosis of some of the most pressing and deadly health concerns within the African-American community. Health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, breast cancer (in women) and stroke are of particular concern to physicians.

Too often, by the time many of these patients see a doctor, it is too late. Some face dramatically shortened lifespans best because the problem has been left undetected for too long. The staff at MLK want to see these patients earlier, so that they can foster better diet, exercise and lifestyle choices that encourage longevity.

I’ve witnessed the results of some of these diseases. My grandmother died of heart failure brought on by diabetes. My uncle died of cancer brought on by smoking taken up during World War II. My aunt suffered a stroke brought on by diabetes as a result of a high-fat diet. She spent her final years in a wheelchair. My father, also a combat veteran in World War II, died of heart disease brought on by high blood pressure and a high-fat diet. My mother suffered a stroke 10 years prior to her death as a result of many of these ailments.

Because diabetes tends to run in my family, I have been careful as I’ve gotten older to maintain a healthy diet coupled with regular exercise and knowledge of my own health. For instance, my cholesterol was very high as was my blood pressure. Thanks to my doctor, I have maintained a much better diet, returned to regular exercise and stopped smoking.

My story is very similar to many of those who are seen regularly at MLK. Some of the medical staff  have told me, in so many words, that: “If we can get persons to have early consultation, we can prevent many premature deaths.” Trying to ward off the onset of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are so important in preventing heart disease and stroke.

Obesity is another problem within the African-American community. Again, this stems from a poor diet and lack of exercise. Although outside of the purview of any single medical facility, South Los Angeles has one of the lowest percentages of park pace of any region in Los Angeles County. Because of the lack of park space, many children of color are not getting enough exercise, and with young people consuming so much junk food — particularly given the high number of fast food restaurants and the dearth of supermarkets in South Los Angeles — the problem of obesity is a rising concern.

What can a writer do to help combat these health problems? A writer can help to sound the alarm that there are methods and facilities available to foster good health even when personal finances and resources may be in short supply. I like what they are doing at MLK, and I like that many low-income persons have been able to take advantage of Covered California, a program that has proven beneficial to the health of our neighbors.

The California Fellowship is a wonderful opportunity for me to encourage more interest in the welfare of the residents of Watts and, specifically, what local health providers are doing to bring about change and wellbeing to its stakeholders. After many years in journalism, I find it an exciting prospect to learn from such a distinguished group of reporters and editors and also to make new acquaintances at the 2017 California Fellowship.


The Center for Health Journalism’s two-day symposium on domestic violence will provide reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The first day will take place on the USC campus on Friday, March 17. The Center has a limited number of $300 travel stipends for California journalists coming from outside Southern California and a limited number of $500 travel stipends for those coming from out of state. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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