Community members mourn the closure of Doctors Medical Center
on April 22, 2015
Plywood with large red letters simply reading “DMC Closed” was affixed to the signs on the street that once welcomed patients to the largest public hospital on the western part of Contra Costa County. Members of the community gathered at the hospital in the early morning of April 21 to say goodbye, then made their way to the Board of Supervisors meeting at the county seat to inform the public about the threat of living in an area without a hospital.
At 7 am on Tuesday, April 21, Doctors Medical Center ended its 50 years of service to the public. At the medical facility that operated as a safety net hospital for a low-income community, hospital staff had been fighting closure for several years while trying to fill a $20 million budget gap. Cities like Richmond as well as the state provided millions in aid to help keep the hospital in operation, but could not keep up with its running deficit.
Nurses, doctors and other staffers said goodbye at the hospital by taking photos, hugging each other and crying as they played a recording of “Taps.” After they left the hospital, a caravan of community members traveled from San Pablo to the county civic building in Martinez, where three out of the five county Board of Supervisors members were conducting the weekly meeting. The protesters dressed in black, as though for a funeral procession, and filled the hallways holding signs saying “Invest in our public health system” and publicizing their hashtag, #Health4All.
The group — made up of patients, activists, medical staff and Richmond City Councilmember Eduardo Martinez — gathered in the lobby of the county building to hold a vigil for DMC. As the participants huddled together with white carnations in the their hands, they spoke about loved ones who used the medical center, or departments in the hospital that will no longer be available to them.
Victoria Stewart, a longtime Richmond resident, was dressed in all black, including the black wrap around her head that was pinned together with a sparkling clip. Stewart had been undergoing cancer treatment at DMC and was lucky enough to complete her treatment before the center closed. She dedicated her speaking time at the vigil to say goodbye to the cancer center that helped provide her treatment as she fought the disease. “Today I say goodbye to the cancer center that was so important to me in my life and will no longer be there to help other people,” she said.
After the memorial, the mourners made their way into county chambers and took over the podium when it was time for public comment. According to the agenda, there was no vote scheduled related to the hospital, but the demonstrators and local leaders wanted to have their concerns heard one last time before history turns the page on the memory of the once-bustling medical facility.
Martinez, a community leader who was elected to the Richmond City Council in 2014, participated in the gathering and addressed the county board members while wearing a black hoodie and sunglasses. He said that there was a “lack of leadership and political will” to keep the hospital open and said that there is a division in the level of attention that the county pays to the people living on the western part of the county, as opposed to the more affluent communities in the east.
Martinez said that if the county continues to invest in jails and not medical facilities, the only way people in his community will receive medical care in the future is if they get arrested — and that’s why he had dressed the way he did for the protest. “It seems like your idea for healthcare in West County is to don a hoodie and some sunglasses, put your hands in your pockets and stroll down unincorporated Richmond so that you can be arrested and put in jail, so you can have healthcare,” he said.
Michael Parker, another longtime resident of Richmond, told the board that the reason DMC closed is “because it cared for too many poor people.” He accused the board of using a bad business model for the public hospital because they expected the facility to generate revenue. “I don’t believe you’ve ever asked the question of the fire department, or whether the sheriffs department is a money-making operation,” Parker said. “They are paid because they are necessary services.”
As speakers approached the podium, they left their carnations piled on top of each other, like people do during the last moments of a funeral before a loved one’s casket is lowered into the ground. As they continued their public memorial, the pile of flowers grew larger and the tone of the speakers’ voice grew more intense.
Marie Walcek, a member of the California Nurses Association, addressed the board and with statistics and facts that highlighted the need for medical facilities in the industrial-rich West County. She reminded the public that after the Chevron refinery explosion, over 15,000 patients utilized the emergency and urgent care facilities at the hospital in less than a week. Walcek also pointed to what she felt were hypocritical inconsistencies in the discussions at county board meetings. “I’ve seen members of the Board of Supervisors in tears hearing about the critical services at some of our animal shelters,” she said. “I applaud your feelings for all creatures, and I hope to see the same level of intensity and passion hearing about the lives that have been lost in West County.”
As a part of the planning for DMC’s closure, a new urgent care center opened Monday across the street from the hospital to serve patients affected by the closure. LifeLong Medical Care, at 2023 Vale Road, will treat medical conditions that require immediate attention, but are not life-threatening. The nearest public hospital will now be Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, which is 20 miles away in Martinez.
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