Taking a hike for health

By Joe Goldeen
Stockton Record
April 13, 2010

FRENCH CAMP - "Take me to General" is a reference to San Joaquin General Hospital that a local police officer or firefighter might make if they were critically injured.

The facility's reputation is that strong, according to nurses who work there.

But that slogan could become a distant memory in a few months if county officials and hospital administrators move forward with a recommendation to eliminate its emergency neurotrauma center for head and spinal injuries.

"Police officers and sheriff's deputies rely on this facility. Where will they go? There's no plan, and the administration doesn't say exactly what they mean," said registered nurse Bonnie McAtee, who has worked at county-operated San Joaquin General for 27 years, the past 17 in the intensive care unit. She also is married to a Stockton police officer.

McAtee and others addressed a small crowd of hospital staff and community members early Monday morning outside the French Camp hospital during a rally that included public employees from all over California who started marching March 5 in Los Angeles to draw attention to the effects of continuing public-service budget cuts by the governor and the state Legislature.

They are expected to arrive April 21 in Sacramento.

Under the banner of Marching for California's Future, the public employees arrived in the county last week and will rally at 8:30 a.m. today outside the San Joaquin County Administration Building in Stockton to support public hospital workers who will fight for their jobs and maintaining medical services for the county's poor and indigent residents.

Oncology nurse practitioner Marcy Goldberg wondered aloud how county supervisors, who have the authority to make changes at the hospital, can consider reducing the days her oncology clinic operates.

"Treatments for leukemia require infusion Monday through Friday. They are going to cut this with no plan," Goldberg said.

"Most of these people aren't dying from their cancer. They're dying from lack of access to care," she said, acknowledging that taking care of cancer patients is costly.

"It's labor intensive. Everything is expensive, but I'm a lot cheaper than an oncologist."

The county hospital has no full-time oncologist, she said. It operates with visits three days a week from oncologists from the University of California, Davis, Medical Center. The same clinic also treats seriously ill patients suffering from infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.

"We're really talking about the continuity of care. What will happen to that?" Goldberg asked.

Nurses and other county hospital employees have consistently said they work at San Joaquin General because of its mission as a safety net for the county's poorest residents.

"I chose to work in a public hospital because I am committed to providing care to a population whose health care needs are exacerbated by poverty. We do that at San Joaquin General Hospital, but now that care is threatened," said Mary Reed, a critical care nurse and labor activist.

Representatives from Single Payer San Joaquin and the California Alliance for Retired Americans also addressed the rally. "It's a myth that all seniors have health care," said Carol Bailey of Stockton. She said many seniors rely on San Joaquin General as their only choice for medical treatment.

According to figures provided by California School Employees Association, which has endorsed single-payer health insurance for all Californians, San Joaquin County would have saved $20 million in health costs for its employees in 2007. That just about equals the General Fund deficit charged to the county hospital this fiscal year.

Speaker Irene Gonzalez, who took off 48 days from work as a Los Angeles County probation officer to join other public employees in the march to Sacramento, shared a very personal story at the rally.

Her brother, who relied upon public assistance for his medical care, died just a few weeks before the march.

"We need these medical services. They are very valuable to keep these people alive. We need to be able to rely on these services. Thank God for the nurses who fought for these services. Public officials need to stop making these cuts. We are going to stop these cuts and we are going to stop them now," Gonzalez said to cheers.