Heart of the City Archives

Laguna Honda Hospital volunteer Tina Kingon with Hank Donat.

Say hello to tomorrow's Laguna Honda Hospital
by Hank Donat

Any local knows that Laguna Honda is the hillside hospital that provides long-term residential care to the city's frail, elderly, and disabled citizens. However, most San Franciscans will never see the inside of it. That would seem like a good thing, but a better thing is a visit to the 137 year-old institution that represents San Francisco as much as Willie Mays and Willie Brown combined.

Coming in from the cold on a foggy afternoon at the facility at Laguna Honda Blvd. and Woodside Avenue, I am quickly struck by the many signs of the hospital's robust activity therapies. Patients' artwork covers the walls - it's quite good, actually - along with photo collages celebrating everything from the hospital's fashion show to its Spanish Language Club. A few patients, all in wheel chairs, are returning from a bus trip. A volunteer trundles by, pushing a cart loaded only with a pair of parakeets on a perch. They are part of the animal visiting program.

Common areas between the out-dated Florence Nightingale-style wards are decorated with street signs and photos from the city's neighborhoods. They are reminders that patients here remain a part of the San Francisco community until they can return to the city outside. Hospital nomenclature dictates that patients here are "residents." The average stay is 404 days.

Modern buildings and other facilities are currently under construction. They will replace the early 1920s structures at a cost of up to $800 million in public and private financing implemented in phases over the next several years. A $299 million bond initiative was approved by 73 percent of San Francisco voters in 1999. The new Laguna Honda Foundation is also raising funds. (For more information, visit lagunahondafoundation.org)

Volunteer Tina Kingon has maintained the hospital's clothing room for the past 17 years. "I'm a one woman show," says Tina, a onetime war bride from Rome who attributes her ability to volunteer fulltime to one thing - a good pension.

Tina sorts and labels donated clothing and arranges for cleaning and mending as needed. Her operation appears to flourish, but Tina says her racks are wanting. "There's not too much we get that's new," she says, "Everyone needs something brand new to wear once in a while."

Tina also organizes bingo prizes, which are as modest as you can get. Residents play for bedroom slippers, cards and games, donated t-shirts, sundries, and coupons redeemable at the hospital's gift shop. Anyone with abundance in their life will be inclined to forgo holding the next garage sale to unload Pottery Barn cast-offs and museum shop impulse items. I want to pull up to the hospital with a truck full of these things and say, "Here, play bingo for the next six months with my blessing."

Elsa Kim and Constance Martin volunteer at the gift shop. The store looks like a Merrill's, perfectly preserved somewhere around 1979, with its metal and glass fixtures festooned in a mix of greeting cards, candy, health and beauty aids, clothing and small gift items.

There's quite a rush here following the bingo game. Shelves of nuts and candy are the busiest. Like all hospital volunteers, Elsa and Constance are on the look out for ribbons that identify patients with diabetes or other dietary restrictions.

Larry Funk is Laguna Honda's executive administrator. "Historically, the perception about Laguna Honda has been that it's a large, high-quality facility for end-of-life care," Funk says, "but over the past 15 to 20 years Laguna Honda has changed remarkably."

As examples of today's Laguna Honda, Funk sites a continuum of care including the hospital's AIDS/HIV ward, expanded and enhanced rehabilitation services, a new Alzheimer's day program, and other programs that keep people healthy and in the community.

"I think the most exciting things we have going are the replacement facilities and the dedication of our 1,400 staff and 800 active volunteers," Funk says.

"Moving from the open wards to private and semi-private accommodations with each bed having its own view and with each household of 15 beds having its own living room, dining room, activity area, and a deck is going to be like night and day for the residents.

"The mojo that drove the new design was 'What are the best practices nationally and internationally for long-term and chronic care?' That's sunlight, nature, openness, access to outdoors, operable windows, easy access to staff, and good food, on top of the best medical care."

Funk says that in addition to continued increase in demand for elderly care, Laguna Honda has seen a huge spike in a younger demographic. "We've seen a significant trend in San Francisco in the past ten years," he says, "The number of residents at Laguna Honda who are age 65 and under has virtually tripled. Issues such as trauma accidents like motorcycle accidents, and violence in the community contribute to this. It's also a manifestation of poly-substance abuse, where some of the people need long-term care at a premature age because of multiple lifestyle issues."

Laguna Honda provides a third of the 3,000 skilled nursing beds in San Francisco. The cost of acquisition of land, construction, and operation keeps the private sector out of the market, with the exception of high-end providers. The new facilities, scheduled for completion in 2011, will make Laguna Honda a peerless provider of clinical and therapeutic programs in the country. That sounds like the City that knows how!

"Laguna Honda is an experience you can only fully appreciate by coming in and taking a tour and talking with some of the patients and staff," Funk says, "If someone comes and spends an hour, their perception of Laguna Honda will change and they will receive one of the richest rewards of their life by seeing how each individual in the community can light up the life of another."

Any San Franciscan who wishes to take a tour, call a bingo game, serve coffee, wrap birthday gifts, chaperone a field trip, sing to someone, play an instrument, or sit and listen may call Laguna Honda Hospital at 759-3333

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Copyright 2004 Hank Donat
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