A blustery rainy morning confronted visiting Rotarians, but it cleared just as everyone arrived at Downey’s world famous Rancho Los Amigos (RLA) National Rehabilitation Medical Center. We met in the sparkling new Outpatient Building, that compliments the new Jacqueline Perry Inpatient Wing of the hospital, which opened in September, and the big Don Knabe Wellness Center. All are part of project Rancho Rising 2020, right on target for completion.
Bill Kirkwood recalled Downey Rotary’s history with RLA. Bill Harriman, one of the founders in 1924 of the Rotary Club of Downey, was Superintendent of Rancho when it was still a work farm for the country poor to serve farming families who could not afford medical services.
Bill also remembered that Bill H., for whom the impressive RLA Administration Building is named, sponsored for membership into the Rotary Club of Downey a young man whom he called “The Boy Wonder.” Guess who? It was Angelo Cardono, now 91 and the club’s - and District 5280’s- longest serving member since 1948. As a sailor from Rhode Island freshly discharged from the Navy after World War II, he decided to stay here and make Downey his home.
Deborah Arroyo, Director of the Rancho Foundation, served as hostess and was joined by Walter Afable, Assistant Hospital Administrator. By now nearly 40 members had found their way to the appointed spot, the Auditorium with its pictures windows that showed the lowering sky.
Deborah introduced Administrator Eric Zapata, who explained that the Rancho Foundation is the non-profit fund raising arm at RLA, whose purpose is to improve the life of the patients, and enable them to be productive citizens again.
“If you were a skier,” said Deborah, “You might think your skiing days were over after your accident. But we organize trips to the slopes in Colorado, and put them out there again. If not on skis, then on a sleigh or toboggan. Kayak trips, surfing. biking, these activities can be made available to patients during and after rehab. So there is life after your accident, and life can be good.
Paul Mathis of the Rotary Club of Downey is Treasurer of the Foundation, and Jesse Vargas, Program Chair, is a member of the Board. Deborah invited everyone to come to the Foundation’s Gala Ball on March 23, and Rotarians were handed an elegant envelope. Held at the Westin in Long Beach, the Amistad (Friendship) event is a fun, glamorous evening, and the theme this year is A Black and White Ball. Downeyites Sam and Beverly Matthis will be there, as always: they’re deeply involved with the Foundation.. She’s a Soroptimist, he’s an Optimist, though the service clubs are not related.
Late Rotary member Pat Gomez Pratt, who died in 2014, was for many years President of the Rancho Foundation Board. She also served as President of the Downey Chamber of Commerce and Grand Marshall of the Christmas Parade. As a young hairdresser, Pat gave her Sundays, her only day off, for cutting and styling the patients’ hair, both men and women, a great moral booster. Later as proprietor of Johnny & Company, Pat even got married at the Amistad Ball, to Cliff Pratt, a Rotarian from the South Gate Club, making cherished memories for many at the Amistad.
Members were divided up into three groups for a tour of the newly opened building, and I joined the one led by Administrator Gilberto Salinas, himself a polio survivor who moved through corridor traffic expertly in his hand-propelled wheelchair.
We stopped by a glass mural wall at the entrance, showing the history of Rancho. Prominent there were Downey Doctors Vern Nickell and Jacqulin Perry. In 1955 they invented the “halo” head brace for patients with spinal or head injuries. And then came Dr. Perry’s ground-breaking Gait Analysis studies in 1968, so useful for rehabbing stroke victims. The Downey Symphony will present a Gershwin! Concert in April, dedicated to Dr. Jackie. Today’s discoveries at Rancho are almost magical: brain-to-computer interfacing.
We whizzed through marble corridors, up in brushed steel elevators, past the new Rehab Facility, custom designed to meet the special needs of patients. The $190 Million building is a “one-stop shop” where patients can get all their therapy, medical and nursing needs all in one place. “They can even get their prescriptions filled speedily here,” Gilbert told us.
We walked through the wide enclosed connectors between Out-Patient Building and Hospital. Everywhere we saw smiling wheelchair patients and workers. When one employee in dark blue scrubs unexpectedly joined the twelve of us on our elevator ride, she was asked to tell what she does, and she willingly explained her role.
A friendly, casual and up-to-date and upbeat place. RLA’s new Out-Patient Building is expected to serve an amazing 70,000 patients in 2019. That’s a lot of well-spent tax-payers dollars in L A County Supervisor Janice Hahn’s Fourth District, doing good work for the community.