he year was 1913, and the bustling neighborhood of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles was a harbinger of things to come.
People from this booming region were often poor immigrants who found hope in a modest storefront medical dispensary that offered free medical care to anyone in need.
Few of them probably understood that this little clinic was the beginning of a bold idea by the Seventh-day Adventist Church to train doctors in the healing work of Christ—or that the clinic was opened to provide hands-on training to earnest young doctors under the watchful eye of their professors from the newly formed College of Medical Evangelists (CME), or Loma Linda University, which simply didn’t have enough patients to provide broad training.
Even the early founders probably couldn’t imagine that this one-room clinic in East Los Angeles would someday become White Memorial Medical Center (WMMC), a comprehensive medical campus and one of the highest-ranked hospitals in California. And today, it likely exceeds their expectations as it celebrates its 100-year history—a story defined by challenges and grace, hard work and hope.
Ellen White’s Living Legacy
The hospital proudly bears the name of Ellen G. White as a living memorial to the woman who advocated for the establishment of a medical school and launched the building of hundreds of Adventist hospitals and clinics worldwide. These places, she believed, could offer a unique kind of medical care that attended to both physical and spiritual needs—and could introduce patients to new ideas about healthful living.
Although she died before she could actually visit the hospital, White’s son W. C. White was able to tell her that Mrs. Lida Scott had offered to make a liberal gift to CME to establish a students’ home and hospital in Los Angeles.
The news so moved her that she trembled with emotion as she replied: “ ‘I am glad you told me this. I have been in perplexity about Loma Linda, and this gives me courage and joy.’ After a little further conversation, I knelt down by her side and thanked the God of Israel for His manifold blessings, and prayed for a continuance of His mercies. Then Mother offered a very sweet prayer of about a dozen sentences, in which she expressed gratitude, confidence, love, and entire resignation.”*
In keeping with her vision to help create a launching pad for medical evangelism, hundreds of doctors trained at WMMC have since that day served in Adventist hospitals and clinics around the world—and this mission to care for the underserved still defines WMMC today.
“Since our beginning, ‘the White’ has existed to be of service,” says WMMC president and chief executive officer Beth Zachary, herself a daughter of a missionary family—her father a teacher and her mother a nurse.
“As a child, one of the most deeply held values in our family was helping others,” Zachary says. “It is one of the abiding gifts from my family, and it is one reason I feel so at home at the White.”
A Magnet for Physicians Who Feel Called to Serve
Just as at the beginning, physicians still come here to develop their clinical skills and reinforce the strong ties to Loma Linda University, the university sponsor for WMMC’s residency programs.
JESSE VELASQUEZ: Velasquez, a nurse and a member of the heart team at White Memorial, came to America with the dream of finding work. His first job as a janitor at WMMC ignited his desire to become a nurse—a 13-year endeavor.
But instead of training doctors in specialty care, WMMC now offers five medical residency programs: internal medicine, OB/GYN, pediatrics, family medicine, and podiatric medicine—a shift in emphasis that reflects their own community’s needs for primary care.
In addition to learning to be medical practitioners, doctors come because they have a special interest in serving people who are in need. WMMC’s unique focus on training doctors to care for underserved populations draws students who share this commitment, and when it’s time for them to go into practice, 65 percent choose to work in areas where good medical care is scarce.
Juan Silva is one such example.
A gifted student who consistently made the honor roll, Silva grew up about four miles from WMMC in El Sereno. During his high school years, he watched his once diverse, dynamic community undergo change.
Those with money moved out, and gangs moved in.
Many of the other top students in his class saw excelling academically as a stepping stone to moving up—which often meant moving out—of El Sereno.
But not Silva.
“I wanted to serve my community, not abandon it. I studied medicine, and then I looked for a medical residency to equip me with skills to care for my community,” he says. “And that led me to White Memorial.”
True to his intentions, Dr. Silva returned home to El Sereno and founded the Mosaic Family Care Medical Group, where he practices with a classmate from WMMC’s residency program.
“A special brand of doctors is drawn to our programs,” says Dr. Luis Samaniego, director of the family medicine residency program. “The family residency program is regarded as the best in California for attracting socially aware students and placing them in the areas of greatest need.”
Where Dreams Begin
WMMC sits just east of the glimmering skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles—the only private, not-for-profit hospital serving the people of East Los Angeles.
Since the day it was founded, it has served a neighborhood on the move. Boyle Heights is known as a place where generations of immigrants first put down roots in the United States.
CHAPEL: Since its beginning, White Memorial has been a hospital that prays.
Decade by decade, people from different ethnic backgrounds have made this area their home: first Russians and Germans, then later a large Jewish community followed by Koreans and Japanese.
Today about 80 percent of the community residents are Latino, and many have come here from Mexico to build a better life for themselves. People such as Jesse Velasquez, who in 1968 crossed the Mexican border into El Paso, Texas, with 1,200 pesos in his pocket and a big dream in his heart.
Back home, in the dusty town of Durango, Mexico, his father’s barbershop barely took in enough to keep the large family afloat, so Velasquez made the 1,470-mile trek to Los Angeles in the hopes of finding work to earn money and help out.
To this day he believes it was Divine providence that led him to WMMC, where he found his first job as a janitor. There he met people such as Drs. Sherif Azer and Miguel Martinez, who took an interest in him and fostered his curiosity for medicine. Dr. Martinez’s interest in Jesse evolved out of his own experience working his way through medical school with so little money he sometimes went hungry.
Velasquez’s interest in medicine grew as he worked at WMMC. “I would look into the operating room and watch in fascination as the team performed surgeries with smooth, choreographed precision,” he says.
He decided to study nursing—a decision that turned into a 13-year journey that included juggling jobs, studying, and earning money that he faithfully sent back to his family every month. Three days a week he’d attend classes until 1:00 p.m., rush to work by 2:00 p.m., work until 11:00 p.m., and study into the early hours of the morning.
When he confided to Dr. Azer, a respected surgeon at WMMC, that he was in a nursing program, the doctor said: “Complete your degree, and I’ll hire you. We can work together.”
Today, Velasquez is a respected surgical nurse and member of the heart team at WMMC, where he’s served as a shift supervisor of the five-member evening crew of nurses and technicians.
Since Velasquez became a nurse, WMMC has developed a residency program for registered nurses and seeks out promising candidates from their area in an effort to create jobs and educate nurses who understand the cultural needs of their patients. Recently graduated nurses get on-the-job mentoring and quickly acquire a sense of confidence and ease working in a complex hospital setting. To date, more than 100 people from their community have completed the program.
Besides its role in patient care and education, White Memorial anchors the community as its largest employer, and contributes significantly to the area’s economy through wages, purchases made in the local community, donations, and uncompensated care.
A New Campus With Faith at Its Center
Motorists on Interstate 5 today can see an impressive, eight-story structure rising above the roofs of the modest bungalows as they near Boyle Heights.
The structure is WMMC’s modern 353-bed, state-of-the art hospital, equipped with the latest technology and built for patient comfort, safety, efficiency, and sensitivity to their community’s unique cultural needs.
FIRST STREET DISPENSARY: White Memorial’s first patients received free treatment at the First Street clinic, which began as a place to train doctors studying at the fledgling College of Medical Evangelists, now Loma Linda University. The clinic was equipped with secondhand medical instruments that were delivered in a wheelbarrow.
It stands as the centerpiece of a $250 million building project that upgraded or replaced aging facilities in a project called “The New White Memorial,” which was launched in 2001 and completed a decade later—largely through government funding and private donations.
As a critical access safety net medical center essential to the region, WMMC must be built to withstand the region’s very real threat of major earthquakes. The rebuilding made possible an entire earthquake-resistant campus that meets the most current safety standards.
“This is God’s hospital,” Zachary says. “And throughout our history, He has always supplied our needs, often in ways that we could never imagine.
“We’ve always had an exceptional medical team and committed and talented staff,” she adds. “And now we have a facility that matches their level of expertise.”
WMMC’s newest addition—their third medical office building, which will house physician offices and a diabetes center—opens in 2013, a testimony to their continued growth.
But WMMC’s leaders will be quick to say that new, modern buildings tell only part of their story. As one of Adventist Health’s 19 West Coast hospitals, this entire medical campus reflects the system’s approach to care that mirrors Christ’s example of healing. Regardless of their ability to pay, patients experience care that is grounded in the Adventist health-care mission—a belief that God Himself is the ultimate healer, that caregivers are agents of His desire to help people flourish, and that God offers hope even in the face of suffering.
The new facility—along with devoted doctors and staff and a rigorous approach to constantly improving quality—has earned WMMC recognition inside and outside of the industry. U.S. News and World Report ranks it high on their Best Hospitals list—number 12 among 140 hospitals in Los Angeles, and number 20 among 430 hospitals in California.
An Unshakable Foundation and a Broad Vision for the Future
With the campus makeover completed, WMMC sits on a foundation designed to withstand earthquakes. But it has always had a philosophical footing that gave it an equally strong base.
CARING STAFF: The hospital not only serves as the area’s largest employer, but plays a key role in educating doctors and nurses—many of whom choose to stay on and care for members of their own community.
“We are stewards of a work that started long before we joined, and will continue well after we are gone,” Zachary says. “We are stewards of a sacred trust that traces its roots back to the forward-thinking ideas of Ellen White and to the origins of our church, which was grounded in service and in promoting health. And it gives us all a sense of satisfaction to be here as we pass the 100-year mark in its history.”
For WMMC, the past proves to be the bedrock on which they’ll build their future—one characterized by finding new ways to live out their mission among a changing population.
Being located in one of the most highly populated Latino communities, for example, offers a great opportunity. “The Hispanic community is one of the fastest growing in the United States. We are in an ideal location to conduct research and pioneer new ways to enhance the health of this population and embark on ways to help them build healthier communities,” Zachary says.
Adapting to change—while staying true to their founding mission and making faith a centerpiece of their work—is what WMMC has always been about. And on this, their 100th anniversary, they’re taking time to reflect deeply on their mission, their past, their faith, and their future. “I would hope that the early founders would be gratified if they could see us today,” Zachary says.
To learn more about WMMC and its upcoming centennial events, go to WhiteMemorial.com/centennial.
* CME Board of Trustees, Minutes, June 15, 1915, p. 4; W. C. White, “The Los Angeles Hospital,” Review and Herald, Sept. 28, 1916; Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Later Elmshaven Years, vol. 6, p. 429.
CMBell Company, Inc., assists businesses and other organizations with communication, marketing, and branding. This article was published on February 28, 2013.
Boyle Heights: The Neighborhood WMMC Serves
• Almost 1 million people live in a five-mile radius of WMMC.
• 80 percent of the community is Latino.
• 35 percent of households earn less than $25,000 annually.
• 31 percent have less than a ninth-grade education, and only 5 percent of residents 25 and older have a four-year degree.
• 21.1 percent of families are headed by a single parent.