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By JESSICA DREBEN

Staff Reporter

The so-called “Angel of Death” has created a public relations nightmare for Glendale Adventist Medical Center, but hospital officials insist that business has not been hurt by the episode.

“Occupancy has been running very high and no one has asked to be transferred,” said Alicia Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the 450-bed hospital. “We have had an overwhelmingly positive response from the community.”

Even so, Gonzalez would not release any figures on the hospital’s patient census, calling it “competitive information.”

The hospital must disclose its first quarter census to the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, but that is not due until May 15. Last year, the occupancy for the first quarter was 51.4 percent.

The hospital was thrust into the national spotlight following disclosure that ex-respiratory therapist Efren Saldivar, a self-described “Angel of Death,” told Glendale police that he killed between 40 to 50 patients by cutting off their air supply or through lethal injection.

Saldivar reportedly told police he was angered with the hospital’s efforts to keep alive patients with no hope of recovery. Saldivar recanted the story in nationally televised interviews last week, but Glendale police said they are continuing to pursue a murder investigation.

As of late last week, more than 500 people had called the hospital’s hotline to express concerns about the episode. But as part of its efforts at damage control, the hospital asked doctors affiliated with the institution to refuse press interviews.

The Business Journal contacted more than 50 doctors certified to practice at Glendale Adventist to get reaction. Only two returned calls, and both declined comment.

Gonzalez said the request was made to prevent misinformation from being disseminated.

“As part of our crisis communications plan, our employees and physicians know that the best way for accurate information to be related to the public is through a single spokesperson,” Gonzalez said.

Although Gonzalez said the hospital is weathering the storm, public relations experts say the incident could taint Glendale Adventist’s reputation for years to come.

“This has the potential to destroy it,” said Charles Ecker, president of Concordia Associates, a Playa Del Rey-based public relations and crisis management firm. “You are dealing with people’s lives. People don’t want to take chances, and hospitals are only as good as their reputations.”

In addition to opening a hotline for concerned patients and their families, Glendale Adventist has held regular news briefings and sent letters to all patients in the respiratory ward to ensure them that the hospital is safe.

It also fired Saldivar and four other therapists. But citing confidentiality needs, the hospital refused to disclose the reasons for the firings.

Michael Gagan, a public relations consultant with Los Angeles-based Rose & Kindel, said the hospital did not move fast enough to take control of the situation, allowing the story to break through the Glendale Police Department.

“They needed a more complete statement sooner,” said Gagan. “They allowed the Glendale police to surface all of the information. In terms of trying to neutralize the story, they would have been in a better position if they responded earlier. When you have a crisis situation, the earlier you respond the better you are in the end.”

But health care industry officials generally praised the hospital’s efforts.

“All of the steps Glendale has taken since they learned about the problem have been aggressive and appropriate,” said Jim Lott, senior vice president of the Healthcare Association of Southern California.

“We believe that most people recognize that this is the work of someone who has a serious problem. There is really not much a hospital can do in a case like this.”

“They have done everything they need to do,” added Tom Thompson, director of communication for the Los Angeles County Medical Association. ” I am impressed at how the hospital is being so candid with the public and staff. It’s a good hospital with a very good reputation.”

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