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Two women tend the flickering flame of D.C. General protest with a hunger strike.
With a vote amid chaos on April 30, the city’s financial control board seemed to have settled the question of the closing of D.C. General Hospital and the transition to a privatized city health service. The demonstrations surrounding the sweeping changes in the city’s public health system, and the unanimous stand taken by the D.C. Council against the closing, have cost Mayor Anthony A. Williams valuable political capital. And even the filing of a lawsuit challenging the control board’s actions in federal district court by Councilmembers Kevin Chavous and David Catania signals that the main battle over D.C. General has moved off the streets.
Some die-hards, however, have not given up the public fight against privatizing the city’s health care.
Mildred King,who works in D.C. General’s personnel office, is one of them. On May 11, King perched on a green lawn chair with several comforters at One Judiciary Square and vowed not to leave or eat until D.C. General had been delivered back to the people.
“A lot of people have given up,” King said of her mission. “But now’s the time to keep fighting. God will come in the eleventh hour to protect his faithful servant.”
King is also the founder of the 4-year-old Power of Prayer Church, located in Upper Marlboro, Md. On the first day of her fast, some hospital colleagues came down to cheer her on, stuffing themselves with cake and fried chicken, she remembers.
The D.C. General controversy hit close to home for King for reasons beyond job security. In 1993, she had an “ordeal” involving her health. “I felt a grab in my chest,” she says. “I thought my heart was going to explode.”
King was taken to Howard University Hospital’s emergency room, where she was told that she had a growth in her chest. She says she was refused further treatment, because she had no health insurance. (The growth turned out to be benign.) When King was injured in a car accident the following year, she still had no insurance. The doctors at D.C. General, King recounts, treated her anyway.
King has worked at the hospital since 1999, but she says her fast is rooted in her own experiences with health-care woes. “That’s why I’m fighting so hard,” King says. “I have to do something, because of these people without health insurance.”
As her days of fasting passed, King sipped from bottles of spring water, swallowed pills for high blood pressure, and shielded herself from the elements with a straw hat, long black leather coat, and gold-rimmed sunglasses. She placed red-and-white signs pleading “Don’t Close DC General” around her chosen post. She brought two Bibles and a vanilla vigil candle, as well. Friends from D.C. General visited her by day, and cockroaches scampered past her at night. Depending on which guard was on duty at One Judiciary Square, she was sometimes allowed inside to use the bathroom.
King says that Williams stopped to speak with her on the fourth day of her hunger strike. When he asked what he could do for her, King told him, “We want a full-service public hospital.”
According to King, Williams replied: “I think the plan I have will work. If there’s anything I can do for you, let me know.”
Six days into the hunger strike, local media had offered only minimal coverage of her vigil, but King remained upbeat. “After this is over,” she said, “I’m gonna make a movie called The Mayor Who Wouldn’t Give In.” She dialed up local clergy and activists on her cell phone and tugged on her now-loose-fitting black skirt, proud of the pounds she had lost for the cause.
Last Friday, seven days into her public fast, King told Jamie Loughner, who’d been keeping her company during the fast, that she felt as if she were drunk. She then walked into the bathroom in One Judiciary Square, where she collapsed. When King didn’t reappear, a D.C. General employee went in to check on her and called 911. An ambulance and a fire truck arrived, and emergency medical technicians strapped the by-then-unconscious King to a stretcher and carted her away.
King’s ambulance was first routed to Howard University Hospital and then to Providence Hospital. Because their emergency rooms were filled to capacity, King finally landed at Washington Hospital Center, where she remained for two days.
The fast to save D.C. General continued, even after King’s collapse. The pastor’s cause was taken up by Loughner, who is an activist for the homeless and a cook at the Zaccheus Soup Kitchen.
Loughner is also fasting in a lawn chair in front of One Judiciary Square. Her right foot, injured when it was crushed in the April 30 melee at the financial control board meeting where the official vote to close D.C. General was taken, is slightly elevated, and she’s got her crutches nearby. Loughner has assumed this position, she says, so that the mayor can “see someone suffering in a clearly medical way.” Loughner says that she was pushed to the floor during the tumult surrounding the closing of the meeting to the public, and she contends that law enforcement officers closed the door while her foot was trapped.
Loughner demanded to be taken to D.C. General. Doctors there told her that she had torn ligaments and some crushed bones. She was told to return in two weeks to have the foot checked again, but when Loughner called to make an appointment, she was told that the earliest date on which she could be seen was July 2.
Taking up King’s fast, Loughner argues, presents her with daily opportunities to tell Williams what she thinks about the D.C. General closing. The only thing that the mayor has asked her thus far, Loughner reports, is whether she will file a claim against the city over her injury.
“I’ll be out here until they repent,” says Loughner, “and literally rescue health care for the poor in this city.” CP