Charles Drew: The South LA medical school that's risen from the ashes

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Things are looking up for Charles Drew University.

Just ask the South L.A. medical school's president, Dr. David Carlisle.

"If you look at any number of parameters, they're looking very positive for Charles R. Drew University," he said, adding that Drew is "absolutely … in the midst of a comeback."

Of course, you'd expect Carlisle to be upbeat about the medical school – he is the president, after all. But his enthusiasm and confidence is not bluster: Carlisle says Drew is one of the top 50 recipients of federal research dollars. Enrollment is higher than it's ever been, and the school's cash reserves are growing.

All of that, he says, is good for Drew's mission: to train doctors to serve where few doctors work – like Watts-Willowbrook, where Drew is located.

“We certainly see a very, very, very special niche for this institution in training the health care providers that will be serving the newly enfranchised members of this community, as well as those who remain without health insurance," Carlisle said.

Pulling Drew back from the brink

But rewind a few years, and it didn’t look like Drew University would be training health care providers for much longer.

Fed up with the high cost and poor care at Martin Luther King, Jr./Drew University Medical Center, L.A. County supervisors shut the place down in 2007. It had been the primary training facility for Drew medical students.

(TIMELINE: See a brief history of Charles Drew University)

Since 1966, Drew has been committed to graduating health providers from South L.A. for the people of South L.A. But when King/Drew (renamed King-Harbor in its final year) closed, it looked like the university's ability to carry out its mission was in danger.

Jim Lott chairs Drew's Board of Trustees.

"My heart was broken when the hospital closed because I know how desperately needed it was for residents of that community," he said.

Lott is also the executive vice president of the Hospital Association of Southern California, so he's familiar with the problems – both medical and financial – that King/Drew experienced.

“We concluded it was a culture of accountability, or culture without the accountability, that was creating the problems," he said. "But no one could say – this was one of the few times you couldn't use this as an excuse – ‘Well, you know we don't have the resources that other hospitals have.’ Because they did.”

Four years ago, Drew was in danger of losing its accreditation – and with it, federal money. Soon after, the California Endowment, a private health foundation, offered to use its reputation and money to get Drew off the banana peel – but only if Drew’s board and president resigned.

They did, and were replaced by President Carlisle, along with a board that included representatives from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Good Samaritan Hospital, Kaiser and the UC School of Medicine.

It worked.

"This was the savior for us," said Lott.

Training doctors to serve the underserved

The Cal Endowment’s backing helped Drew carry on with its tradition of training doctors who’ll care for people who often don’t get a doctor’s care. It’s an important mission, says Yasser Aman; he teaches part-time at Drew and used to head UMMA Community Clinic in South L.A.

“There’s something to be said about tradition and actually having a lot of experience in the community, down by the neighborhood, down by each home, and so forth," he said. "And a lot of that can only come from a passionate workforce.”

Of course, the scars of past problems remain. But they haven’t stopped the passionate workforce Aman is talking about.

Take Dr. Raquel Soto, who practices family medicine at Harbor/UCLA and who went to Drew in the ‘90s. Soto says of the 24 doctors in her graduating class, 18 chose to go into family medicine.

“Most of us selected areas that were either county hospitals or areas that were underserved," she explained. That's not too common these days.

Dr. Ngozi Chukwu started her four years at Drew in 2007 – but she says the school’s less-than-stellar press at that time didn’t mean as much to her as its mission did.

“The individuals who are attracted to that school, and decide to get their degree from that school, all have this common goal and no matter what they choose to go into in the future, the fact that you know that there are people you can collaborate with who actually want the same goals, I think, was very exciting and definitely hard to pass up," she said.

The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Chukwu graduated two years ago; she’s now in the second year of a three-year family medicine residency with Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles.

“That’s always been a mission of mine: to take down those barriers and make sure that you’re improving health for not only the people who can afford it, but those who can’t," she said.

And with the expected swell in demand that will come with health care reform in the very near future and the reopening of a new and reorganized King Hospital this year, that kind of commitment to Charles Drew University’s mission will prove crucial to South Los Angeles – and beyond.

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