“Our faith and vision have brought us through numerous crisis and changes for 100 years and we will continue our excellent service for decades to come.”
– Beth Zachary, White Memorial Medical Center President and CEO.
In September 1913, just east of the Los Angeles River, a small medical clinic opened as a teaching hospital with medical students who had only two years of theoretical classroom education.
The clinic, located on 1st Street, was as humble as could be, and was founded by what is known today as Loma Linda University. Despite working with secondhand medical instruments in a cramped facility, students were dedicated and engaged as they learned about modern medicine by examining patients.
Little did the founders and students know that the fledgling Seventh-day Adventist Clinic they established would become one of the finest hospitals and a Los Angeles fixture of landmark proportions in an area that would years later be named Boyle Heights.
From those humble beginnings, came White Memorial Medical Center, which this year is proudly celebrating 100 years of its commitment to caring, serving and healing.
Today, located on Cesar Chavez Avenue, a few blocks from where the small clinic opened, White Memorial is an award-winning 353-bed acute care community and teaching hospital, staffed by 462 physicians, 86 residents, 1,879 employees and nearly 700 volunteers. The not-for-profit hospital has served local families for generations and is an active part of the community.
As it continues its tradition of caring, White Memorial’s administrators, doctors and staff have joined community members in yearlong centennial celebrations. The celebrations are commemorating the hospital’s focus on the people who have made it flourish: patients and families, employees, health care professionals, nurses, physicians and friends of the hospital.
Named after Ellen G. White, the hospital is a living tribute to the Adventist leader who had the dream of integrating healing, healthy-living and whole-person care.
There were bumps along the road. The medical center was shook by earthquakes, hit by economic crisis, weathered two world wars and saw a shift in the population it serves.
“White Memorial has a fierce determination to face obstacles, a love for serving its community and a faith in the divine role in healing and in advancing the mission of the hospital,” said Beth Zachary, WMMC President and CEO. “I’m confident that the shoulders we stand on are strong enough to take us through whatever the future holds – as long as we remain true to our mission and values.”
Other area hospitals have opened and closed during White Memorial’s existence, including Linda Vista, Los Angeles Central Receiving, Belvedere, Santa Marta and Bella Vista hospitals.
“Our faith and vision have brought us through numerous crisis and changes for 100 years and we will continue our excellent service for decades to come,” Zachary said.
One such crisis came as recently as 2006 with the death of two premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. Hospital officials closed the unit for two weeks after an outbreak of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common but potentially deadly bacterium, especially to people with weak immune systems, had sickened seven young patients.
“We are sad it happened,” hospital spokesperson Alicia Gonzalez said. “During the situation, we received enormous support and assurance from our White Memorial community and families and for that we are extremely grateful.”
But David and Lucina Marin, the grieving parents of one of the dead infants, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against White Memorial, citing negligence with the aim of putting pressure on the hospital to “never let this happen again.”
An investigation by county health officials determined White Memorial had changed the way instruments had been previously disinfected. The hospital reverted to its original sterilization practices and took all the appropriate measures, infection control and otherwise, to correct the problem. The director of the county’s acute communicable disease control unit praised the hospital for alerting authorities early about the problem.
“White Memorial and many hospitals across the country learned a great deal of valuable information from this event to prevent it from ever occurring again” Gonzalez said. “Patient safety remains our first priority and that will always be the case.”
When White Memorial separated from Loma Linda University in the 1960s the Adventist church reduced the hospital’s funding. Like many other hospitals across the country, it struggled during the 1970s to find ways to control rising costs from advances in medicine and technology and caring for the uninsured.
It was a challenge to continue to provide quality healthcare for a demographic that had turned 60 percent Latino, many without health insurance. While many families had lived in the area for decades and had good jobs and adequate health insurance, many of the area’s newer residents did not. Nonetheless, White Memorial treated all patients needing care, regardless of their ability to pay.
In 1982, a $5 million loss nearly led to White Memorial’s closing. But after helping generations of immigrants, White Memorial refused to abandon them. Thus, the hospital’s annals show the 1980s as an era dedicated to cost cutting and dire efforts to increase revenues amid a rising number of open beds.
However, in 1989, a single event reversed White Memorial’s financial crisis and promised to protect the hospital from similar circumstances in the future. California Senate Bill 855 established funds for hospitals — such as White Memorial — that provide a high percentage of charity care (free or reduced-cost care) and serve a disproportionately high number of Medi-Cal patients. The bill enabled White Memorial to be financially strong today and well positioned for the future.
Another financial boost came in 1996 when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) committed more than $89 million in funds to the hospital in the wake of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Although damage to the hospital was minor, White Memorial qualified for funds to retrofit and/or rebuild as a result of California State Senate Bill 1953, which requires that all hospital buildings not only remain standing, but be operational following a major earthquake.
In 2012, US News & World Report ranked White Memorial No. 12 among the top 32-rated hospitals in the Los Angeles metro area and No. 20 of the 41 strong-performing hospitals in California.
Raul Cardoza, a retired college administrator who was raised in Boyle Heights, was so appreciative with the care his mother, Carmen, who died in 2010, received at White Memorial that he wrote a letter of gratitude to Zachary.
“I wrote a very supportive letter describing the great medical services my mom received,” Cardoza recalled, noting the good bedside manner of the caring doctors and staff. “The CEO was so pleased that she printed my letter in White Memorial’s monthly newsletter for the entire staff to see.”
White Memorial was founded by early Seventh-day Adventist pioneers who believe that health and wellness was achieved through proper nutrition, sunlight, fresh air, water, exercise and trust in divine power. These principles may seem simple now, but back then, when tobacco was prescribed for lung conditions and bathing was thought to cause disease, they were revolutionary.
In 2010, White Memorial completed a $250 million project to rebuild much of the hospital – made possible in part by $89 million in FEMA funding for seismic upgrades and $30 million in community support. The hospital now has a new eight-story tower, the crowning structure of the expansive and rebuilt medical campus.
White Memorial officials say that the hospital has always had a spirit of optimism about the future and a deep and abiding respect for people, even as it faced wars, earthquakes, depression, financial crisis and other difficulties.
During World War II, local Japanese and Japanese American residents living near the hospital were relocated to internment camps. A nearby Japanese hospital asked WMMC to operate their hospital in their absence. Without hesitation, White Memorial assumed its management and when the Japanese were freed, gave back the keys.
An exhaustive documentation of White Memorial’s milestones are compiled in the book “The Inspiring 100-year history of White Memorial Medical Center, A Journey of Faith and Healing,” written by Ronald Graybill and edited by Jane Allen Quevedo.
The medical center teaches physicians, nurses and health care workers—but also provides patients and community members with education on how to improve their health. Along with taking care of the physical health of the community, the hospital has many programs to assist local residents in learning more about taking care of their own health needs. With an economic impact of $937 million each year, White Memorial in many ways has become a beacon of community pride in the underserved Latino neighborhood where it is located.
In serving its mission of keeping the community healthy, White Memorial’s services include behavioral medicine, diabetes care, cardiac and vascular care, intensive and general medical care, oncology, orthopedic care, rehabilitation, specialized and general surgery, stoke care and women’s and children’s services. The hospital serves more than 126,000 patients each year.
White Memorial Medical Center is celebrating its Centennial year with a series of events throughout the year, including a Gala this Sunday at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel that annually raises funds for the medical facility. For more information about the events and for a look at gallery of historical photos and stories about the hospital from members of the community, visit www.whitememorial.com/Centennial.