Nine months ago, Ernesto Aton arrived at Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo with chest pain and difficulty drawing a breath. I've been thinking about him a lot lately as West Contra Costa Healthcare District voters are being asked to approve another parcel tax to keep open our community hospital.
His story, told with his permission, illustrates why saving DMC is essential and why the hospital is in such dire financial straits.
Aton, now 57, lives in Hercules, is married and the father of three grown daughters. Before his arrival at DMC on the night of May 30, 2013, he had been experiencing chest discomfort for a long time, but the cause had gone undiagnosed. He didn't smoke or drink. At another facility, he had undergone an EKG, stress test and blood work, but inconclusive results led his physicians to attribute his condition to job stress and sent him home with a prescription to relax.
Aton eventually lost that job, and with it his insurance, but not the chest pain. Upon the onset of crushing chest pain, "like an elephant standing on my chest," it took only eight minutes to arrive at the DMC emergency department. Twenty minutes later, Aton was in surgery in the DMC Cardiac Catheterization Lab. He had a fully occluded left main coronary artery. Generally a lethal event, it meant two-thirds of the blood flow to his heart was entirely closed off.
We performed angioplasty and placed metal stents in his left coronary artery, thus re-establishing blood flow. Two days later he was back on his feet. Today, Aton is doing well and working again. "If not for DMC and the group of doctors they had in place, I would have been a goner," Aton says.
He is correct. And his story is instructive. In addition to providing roughly 80 percent of inpatient hospital capacity and nearly 60 percent of emergency room care within its service area of 250,000 residents, DMC provides about 25 percent of severe heart attack care countywide.
When a heart attack is suffered in Richmond, for example, the closest alternatives to DMC are Alta Bates/Summit Medical Center Oakland and John Muir Medical Center Walnut Creek -- both miles away on frequently congested roads and freeways when minutes count.
If DMC closes, we know with certainty that people will die unnecessarily each year as a result. Additionally, while more than half of insured people in West County are Kaiser members, they too will suffer if DMC closes, since patients presenting to Kaiser Richmond Medical Center are rapidly transferred to DMC for emergency lifesaving therapy.
In an editorial earlier this month, this newspaper took the view that to approve the new parcel tax on May 6 would be to throw good money after bad. After two previously approved parcel tax measures, it is time for the district to cut its losses and let its 60-year-old community hospital fail, the newspaper said.
I don't believe that position was taken with a full understanding of the true costs in human terms. I understand the frustration. But, unlike Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, which shares DMC's safety-net mission of providing quality care regardless of a patient's ability to pay, DMC does not receive an annual county general fund subsidy to balance its books as county Medical Center and other forms of public services do.
As an independent district hospital, it is just a fact of life: DMC requires generous community support, if it is to be there for all residents in their time of need.
So, by all means, when your district ballot arrives next month, I implore you to mark it yes and return it promptly. DMC's survival is in your hands.
Dr. Richard Stern is a cardiologist who joined Doctor's Medical Center in 1981 and serves as the hospital's chief of staff.