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Kaiser families with children battling cancer hold protest in Woodland Hills

A new layer of concern for Kaiser Permanente families with children battling cancer.

Kaiser’s Regional Chief of Pediatrics, Dr. Robert Riewerts, who oversees the Southern California region, confirms upper level management has spent years looking at moving the pediatric hematology-oncology inpatient and (some of) infusion services from the Woodland Hills facility to Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center on Sunset Boulevard.

“What our goal has always been at Kaiser Permanente is to make sure that when we provide care to children, it’s really at the right place, right time and the best, best possible care,” said Riewerts. “And that’s complicated.”

Word started spreading among the impacted families before the Thanksgiving Holiday.

“I come here three times a week with my wife to get care for my child,” said Martin Carrillo, a Winnetka resident.

His three year old son, Aaron, was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of one. The toddler is one of many children in Southern California, and other areas, who’ve endured surgeries, bone marrow tests and chemotherapy treatments at the De Soto Street location.

“This is not only impacting us but it’s impacting children of Santa Barbara, Ventura, Santa Clarita,” Carrillo said. “All those patients, children transferred here are referred to this clinic because of the specialized care and the great care they receive here.”

Carrillo was one of more than a dozen parents who organized a protest Thursday morning at the entrances to Kaiser Permanente’s Woodland Hills facility, holding signs that read, “Keep peds onc permanent” and “Cancer is fulltime.”

“Kaiser has said that they’re going to temporarily keep the department open part time,” said Elizabeth Irias, whose 18-month-old son was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder at 6 months. “However, if anybody knows cancer, it’s not a part-time kind of thing and we need our children to have full time treatment.”

Irias travels to the hospital from Moorpark.

Parents say they were given a heads-up about the pending changes from Kaiser employees and that inpatient services would be impacted and ultimately, some staff will be replaced. The say their main oncologist, Dr. Susan Storch, is slated to retire. Some parents feared the entire pediatric oncology department would close.

Kaiser’s public relations team and medical directors went into damage control and sent out a letter describing how the changes to the department could come “at a future date” but that “there are no plans to close the clinical oncology area of Kaiser Permanente Woodland Hills.

Still, families say changing to a facility 30 miles away is disconcerting.

“Traffic is almost like two and a half hours,” said Vilma Rosales, Aaron’s grandmother. “Sometimes Aaron’s fever is 104. It’s very fast to come here. I don’t want to lose my grandson.”

Alyssa Smithburger agreed. She said her 10-year-old son has spent the past four years being treated for his leukemia at the Woodland Hills hospital and hates the idea of adding a long drive and new doctors and nurses to a grueling and painful treatment.

“After a child has a spinal tap or a bone marrow test, a child’s in pain,” Smithburger said. “Some of it requires anesthesia and a long drive. They inject chemo in the spine … kids are uncomfortable and miserable. Adding another hour to the drive would be hell for the kids.”

“No decision has been made to the inpatient services at Woodland Hills, as of yet,” Riewerts said. “Whether that will happen in the future, we’re not sure but we’re looking at it.”

If the unit is relocated south, it would become part of a “centralized center of care,” according to Peggy Hinz, Senior Director of Communications for the Southern California Region of Kaiser Permanente.

Riewerts says communicating with parents through letters, emails and face-to-face meetings will help in the final decision.

“We value their input but we also want to make sure that children, when they are indeed hospitalized, it’s in a setting that’s going to get the best quality care.”

“We’re hoping by demonstrating today they might change their minds.” Carrillo said.

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