October 30, 2018 was different—that was the day the job got personal for Beverly Smith-Brown. She works for the Alliance of Concerned Men, where she’s on alert 24-hours a day, seven days a week, to respond when residents suffer gunshot and stab wounds in Southeast D.C. While working as a trauma-informed advocate at a crime scene in Ward 8, she got a phone call from her sister: Her nephew, 25-year-old Taquan Smith, was shot multiple times on Alabama Avenue SE.
The paramedics rushed him to MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Northwest D.C., roughly a 30-minute drive away with light traffic. That’s because there is no hospital with a trauma center east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8, neighborhoods where mostly black residents reside.
“He did not make it—there’s a lot of situations like that,” says Smith-Brown. “I’ve seen people die on the way to the hospital. They didn’t make it.”
It seemed unlikely that Taquan would survive, given that he was shot seven times, she says, and when you’re going through that kind of trauma, you don’t think to question whether getting to the hospital any sooner would have made a difference.
But what came to mind when Smith-Brown recounted the murder of her nephew was the fact that her brother survived after he was shot eight times. He was taken D.C. General Hospital, which used to be on Massachusetts Avenue SE. “They were creating miracles over there,” says Smith-Brown. A lot has changed since D.C. General Hospital, the District’s first public hospital, shuttered in 2001.
“You can’t even have a baby east of the river, you have to go west. We don’t have an ob-gyn. There are a lot of different issues… not enough grocery stores,” says Smith-Brown. “It’s definitely inhumane when you think of the needs of the people who are being ignored.”
At least 112 people have died by homicide in D.C. so far this year, and 73 victims were murdered in Wards 7 and 8, according to the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Yet the only hospital in the area, United Medical Center (UMC), doesn’t have a trauma center where gunshot or stabbing victims can be admitted around the clock. There are four hospitals in D.C. that do, and they are all in Northwest: George Washington University Hospital, Howard University Hospital, MedStar Washington Hospital Center, and Children’s National Health System.
Meanwhile, UMC is set to close by 2022. Due to a number of problems, related to finances and patient safety, the city has plans to replace UMC with a new hospital; the logistics are still being worked out.
The advocacy group D.C. Health Justice Coalition, along with the District of Columbia Nurses Association, has been holding monthly meetings at UMC with staff and community members to talk about the new hospital.
The most recent meeting was August 22. During conversations about the need for the new hospital to provide the full-range of services, not be a “glorified urgency care center,” Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Christopher Hawthorne said something that’s been on a lot of people’s minds: “Right now there are a lot of shootings and we have no trauma center. And we already have a hospital in service.” People around him nodded.
Among those who attended the meeting was Ward 7 resident Clayton Rosenberg, who also works with Alliance of Concerned Men and acts as an advocate in whatever way victims in 20032 need through the nonprofit’s Trauma Recovery Center.
“If this hospital—that covers Ward 7 and 8 for 150,000 residents—had a trauma unit, I believe to the bottom of my heart that this hospital would have saved many many victims,” Rosenberg told City Desk after the meeting.
First responders know not to take victims in critical condition to UMC, he says. On a recent Friday at around 2:30 p.m., someone was shot on Southern Avenue SE right by the hospital, and the ambulance had to take the victim west of the river. “So it took them an hour and a half just to get to the hospital and the guy still had the bullet inside him,” says Rosenberg.
But sometimes victims take themselves to UMC, thinking the hospital could help them. About two weeks ago, while Rosenberg was stationed at UMC for his weekly shift, a woman who was stabbed multiple times—“blood gushing everywhere,” he says—went to the emergency room to be treated. But the hospital couldn’t help her, so she had to wait and be transferred elsewhere.
“This is the hospital that they depend on,” says Rosenberg. “For instance, if something happens to us over here, you really expect us to travel uptown when there’s a hospital on this side. The fact there’s one hospital that takes care of 150,000 people is ridiculous itself.”
Rosenberg believes they both survived, but that’s not always the case. Alliance of Concerned Men’s Trauma Recovery Center responded to 60 alerts between May and August, and more than half didn’t make it, Rosenberg says.
For as long as Debra Jeje has worked at UMC—and that’s 28 years—the hospital has never had a trauma center. Jeje, who works in the emergency department as a patient care coordinator, says she heard whispers a few years back about UMC considering it. But that never materialized; a trauma center would cost too much money.
“I don’t know why they haven’t had one in all of these years. I really really don’t,” says Jeje. “And now we are talking about a new hospital, and I don’t think I’ve heard anything about there being a trauma center there either.”
The office of Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, who’s made the new hospital a priority, didn’t respond to City Desk’s request for an update. In mid-August, while speaking on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, Gray did say that negotiations are still ongoing, with Universal Health Services, which operates George Washington University Hospital, “still very much in the picture.” He sounded optimistic as he described the new community hospital. But he also said there’s no back-up plan should negotiations fall apart.
“There will be a lot of services that people don’t necessarily associate with a hospital,” Gray said. “In addition to that, GW, as many people know, operates a lot of speciality services itself and those services will be available as well to people living in Wards 7 and 8. So there won’t be a lack of services at all.”
Residents have complicated feelings about UMC and what’s to replace it.
Smith-Brown, for example, lost three sisters at UMC, formerly Greater Southeast Community Hospital: one who visited to be treated for an asthma attack, another for a drug overdose, and her 29-year-old sister who was in a diabetic coma. “Drag me to NW before I go to UMC,” Smith-Brown says.
That said, Wards 7 and 8 need a trauma center right now, and one that’s adequately funded, according to everyone City Desk interviewed.
“When they are talking about building a new hospital, they need to take a good long look at the community and try to see how it’ll affect them,” says Jeje. “If you are not going to have a trauma center at the new hospital, you’re still going to transfer patients… We get so many walking in, being dropped off. We try to stop the bleeding or do whatever is necessary.”