PART ONE
STEVE LOPEZ / POINTS WEST

Demons Are Winning on Skid Row

Chavez knows the rain will bring bogus 911 calls from those trying to scam a dry night in the hospital. He knows shoplifters in handcuffs at the local police station will fake an overdose to get out of jail.

"I try to treat everyone the way I'd want to be treated," Chavez says. "You meet some of the nicest, most interesting people out here."

On my shift with him, I saw Chavez move like a dancer under the most stressful circumstances. He gently questioned a middle-age woman who had been robbed, badly beaten and dropped next to a dumpster in a skid row alley, her left eye swollen shut and her hair a stringy, bloody mess.

"Are you with me?" Chavez called to her when she seemed to be fading out. Then, straddling her gurney, he perfectly tilted his patient sideways at the precise moment she vomited a stream of blood and mucus, knowing full well she might have choked on it if he hadn't.

He was nonstop motion, quick, nimble, calm. It was battlefield ballet.




Kristina has taken a turn for the worse on the way to the emergency room at County-USC. By the time Chavez and Penuelas pull her out of the ambulance, she's rigid, her eyes wide and blank.

"Circling," Chavez calls it. As in going down the drain.

"Let's get her in," Chavez says. "I've got a pulse of 32 on her."

Chavez is running as he pushes the gurney through double doors. Kristina takes what sounds like a last breath as she flies into the yellow light and constant chaos of the emergency room. The sick and wounded watch her go by, waiting their turns by the dozens, witness to the endless horrors that race in off the street and crash through the door.

It's in the hands of doctors and nurses now. A team of 10 closes in around Kristina, with four students peering down from a balcony to see how it's done. Chavez hangs around in case they've got questions for him and because he still can't figure out why things went south so quickly.

Another overdose victim lies next to her, along with a guy who fell off a forklift.

"They've got a stabbing victim coming in too," Chavez says, and a young man comes through the doors flat on his back and covered with blood.

"He's got no pulse!" someone yells as another team goes to work on him.

Kristina is bad and getting worse.

"Clear," says a doctor, trying to jump-start her with a current.

The jolt lifts her off the gurney.

"Three hundred," says the doctor. "Clear."

Another jolt.

Three-sixty. Another shot.

How many times has Chavez seen this? Too many to count, and it all runs together in the end, as much of a blur as the ride from skid row to the hospital.

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