A pioneering public hospital checks out

(Excerpted from “L.A. Then and Now,”  by  Cecilia Rasmussen, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, October 2, 2005)

Celebrities, mayors, judges, and fire and police chiefs drew their last breaths here, as did thousands of rich and poor Angelenos. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy received last rites here.

Now, this pioneering public hospital is receiving its last rites. It will be razed this week to make way for the Los Angeles Police Department’s new $29-million Rampart station.

For more than a century, the institution most recently known as Central Receiving Hospital provided emergency care and, later, paramedic services. Many a police officer and firefighter owed his life to this frontline first-aid station for those who needed to be stitched up and sent on to bigger hospitals.

The two-story, brick-faced structure at 6th Street and Loma Drive, just west f downtown, is the hospital’s fifth location. Built in 1957 for $1.5 million, it closed to the public in 1970. But as recently as August, it offered physical psychological exams to police officers and firefighters.

The city’s first receiving hospital of sorts opened in 1868 as a “pesthouse”—in effect, a hospice for victims of pestilence, especially smallpox. But soon the Chavez Ravine institution took in victims of other contagious diseases as well.

Its second incarnation began in the late 1880s as a two-room emergency first-aid unit in the back of the downtown Central Police Station. One police surgeon tended all comers: victims of shooting, rapes and assorted mayhem.

By the end of 1889, 562 patients had been treated there. A year later, the number had multiplied to 3,515 as the area’s population soared.

A few years later, in 1896, a new Central Police Station and Receiving Hospital opened on the south side of 1st Street, between Broadway and Hill streets. Horse-drawn ambulances rushed victims through the drive-up entrance.

It would take another dozen years before the city hired its first professional nurse, Charles Whitehead. In his 33 years of service, he treated victims of the 1910 Los Angeles times bombing and picked “scores of metal pieces” out of former LAPD detective turned private eye Harry Raymond, whose car was bombed in 1938 after he blew the whistle on corrupt cops.

Police Chief Charles Edward Sebastian worked there before becoming mayor in 1915. But he was forced to resign the next year when the Los Angeles Record published letters he had written to his mistress describing his wife as “the Old Haybag.”

He tried to return to the LAPD as a lieutenant, but the force refused to take him back. He got a job as a gas station attendant.

Despite his reduced circumstances, he put his son, Charles Francis Sebastian, through Stanford Medical School. The younger Sebastian returned to Los Angeles in 1922 to play a leading role at the hospital.

In 1927, the fourth incarnation of the hospital opened a few miles away, on the third floor of the Georgia Street Police Station. The first patient was “Baby Fauso Bustus, 3 years old, son of Mrs. F. Bustus, 1609 Redwood St.,” a Lost Angeles newspaper reported.

Georgia Street Receiving Hospital was among about a dozen hospitals in the city by then. For three decades it was also the poorest, with outdated tools and technology.

Satellite hospitals in Hollywood, Lincoln Heights and Van Nuys began opening in the late 1930s under the leadership of Dr. Sebastian. In 1949 he was promoted to superintendent in charge of all four city hospitals. Sebastian came up with a life-saving innovation that is ubiquitous today.

In 1952, ambulance attendant Jack Gilson died when he was thrown from the vehicle in a traffic accident. Sebastian had already watched two other ambulance attendants die that way and didn’t care to see a fourth. He devised a series of straps to hold passengers into their seats, according to Al Cowen, retired Los Angeles Fire Department chief paramedic who is chairman of the Department of Emergency Services for Valley College.

“This early form of seat belts was installed in all 13 of the city’s ambulances, commonly referred to as Brown Bombers,” which were tan station wagons “with red crosses painted on the side,” Cowen said.

For more than a decade, Sebastian had been begging the City Council to build a modern facility. At last he prevailed, and the Central Receiving Hospital opened in June 1957. It included 40 rooms: 20 on the first floor for civilians and 20 on the second floor for police officers and firefighters. Each room was equipped with “piped-in oxygen,” the Times reported, and the X-ray and surgical equipment was state of the art.

Georgia Street treated its last patient on June 27, 1957, according to hospital logbooks. The Police Department continued to use the building until the mid-1980s, when it was demolished to expand the Convention Center.

Sebastian directed the hospitals until his retirement in 1961.

Perhaps the most famous of Central Receiving’s patients arrived by ambulance in the early morning hours of June 5, 1968. Robert F. Kennedy had been shot at the nearby Ambassador Hotel after winning the California presidential primary.

News of the shooting traveled fast. By the time Kennedy’s ambulance arrived, more than 300 bystanders had gathered to keep vigil.

Father Thomas Peacha of St Basil’s Catholic Church was driving near the Ambassador Hotel when he heard the news on the radio. He headed for Central Receiving and made his way to the emergency room, where Kennedy was lying on the table. The senator’s wife, Ethel, was sitting nearby on a stool.

“I’m sure he wasn’t conscious,” Peacha said in an interview with The Times shortly afterward. Peacha administered last rites using a tiny piece of cotton soaked in blessed oil.

Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. June 6 at Good Samaritan Hospital across the street, where he had been taken for surgery.

The City Council initially blamed Kennedy’s death on the small, ailing hospital and the ambulance drivers who had bypassed other facilities to take him there. Confidence in the hospital weakened, and the council implemented a policy permitting injured police officers and firefighters to receive emergency care at the nearest hospital.

But several investigations found that the battle to save Kennedy’s life had been lost the moment Sirhan Sirhan pulled the trigger. Hospital personnel had handled everything correctly, the probe found.

In 1969, the hospital came under fire again when LAPD Officer Robert J. Cote was shot as he tried to stop a robbery. Cote was transported four miles through heavy traffic to Central Receiving and pronounced dead more than an hour later.

Again, citizens were assured that it wouldn’t have mattered where he was taken.

“Even if cote had been shot in the lobby of the hospital, he could not have survived,” Central Receiving Hospital Supt. M.X. Anderson said.

Still, the Cote affair continued to be a festering source of community anger. The council pressed to shutter the hospital, and in 1970 it closed to the public. Paramedic services switched to the Fire Department—as Sebastian had suggested 11 years earlier.

As he walked through the old hospital recently, Cowen, the retired chief of paramedics, thought of all the lives that had been saved there.

“Charles Sebastian’s ghost is walking around here somewhere,” Cowen said. “And if he could, he’d embrace everyone, saying thank you.”

A POSTSCRIPT FROM JESS WAID

In August 1963, I was involved in a high-speed wobble on my Harley-Davidson police motorcycle while inbound on the Hollywood Freeway at Barham Boulevard. The bike was heading for the center divider, a chain link fence, so I made the instant decision to lay the bike down on its right side—not the way to do it as my right foot slipped off the brake and pulled me under the heavy motorcycle.

I slid 100 yards resulting in a vertical break of my right scapula, a nasty avulsion under my chin from the windshield, my right knee was torn open, and my right arm filled with roadside gravel accumulated along the center divider strip. Eighty percent of my ulnar nerve was destroyed.

I was rushed Code Three to Central Receiving Hospital, where Doctor Bob Morgan, saved my right arm and my life. I was on the table for six-plus hours. Doc performed three skin grafts to the avulsed areas: chin, right arm and right knee. Two weeks later I was discharged. Several subsequent operations with a plastic surgeion corrected most of the damage to my jaw and face.

So, although I am not a ghost, I am one of those who Cowen referred to who would embrace the CRH staff and Doctor Bob and say, “Thank you.”