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Warrior One: For five decades, Roz Dean has supported grassroots efforts for the working class. Today she leads a group trying to revive downtown's only hospital, closed last month in a cost-cutting move.

Rambling Roz

The story of the woman behind the six-year battle to save San Jose Medical Center

By Vrinda Normand

IN THE HUBBUB before the City Council convenes the second Tuesday of 2005, Roz Dean doesn't miss a beat. The 72-year-old leader of Save San Jose Medical Center Coalition thrives in the whirlwind of political activity as she distributes fliers in the hallway outside council chambers, rallies supporters and rushes to greet incoming city officials.

Dean offers District 4 Councilmember Chuck Reed a sticker to wear that says "Save SJMC." He smiles but politely declines. Unfazed, she pushes on, "We expect your support, Chuck." He responds that he'll do his best.

The petite activist, wearing knee-high leather boots and a baggy cotton tunic cinched at the waist with a fanny pack, has prepared for a meeting that will mark a turning point in a struggle she has led since 1999. This afternoon, the council will consider a study the city and county paid more than $100,000, a study that predicts future health-care shortfalls in light of the December closing of San Jose's only downtown hospital.

When the report was commis-sioned in the summer of 2004, activists and politicians were preparing for a projected closure of 2007. But HCA, the conglomerate that owns San Jose Medical Center as well as Good Samaritan Hospital and Regional Medical Center, changed its mind and abruptly shut SJMC's doors last month.

Now the stickers and signs the SJMC coalition flaunts hold only symbolic significance. Instead of giving up, Dean is pushing forward with increased backing. The coalition has asked the city to preserve the site for another downtown hospital.

As she sits pensively, waiting for councilmembers to discuss the study, Dean's sharp brown eyes reveal traces of weariness. The coalition she formed six years ago with her late husband Al Traugott and several other activists now includes over 80 group members and has reached thousands of South Bay residents with petitions and presentations.

"Roz is one of the most amazing women that I have worked with since I've been in office," Vice Mayor Cindy Chavez, one of the chief supporters of the coalition's cause, says in a later interview. "She was sounding the emergency before others could see it coming. She and the coalition have cared enough about people they will never know to dedicate hours of their lives for the health and safety of our community."

It could be a decade before the city's downtown sees another hospital, but Dean says she will "just keep plugging away." After all, her life story is one of persevering in the face of injustice. As her close friend and coalition partner Father Bill Leininger puts it, "The main thing I think about Roz is persistence."

Tomfoolery

Born in 1932 to a Romanian immigrant family in Chicago, Dean entered the world of activism early in life. "Even as a young child, I was always concerned about human rights and civil rights," she says, though she was unaware what they were called at the time.

In 1953 she married Allan Dean, an African American man, and the two settled in a predominantly black inner city neighborhood in Chicago. There she filled a prominent role in the PTA and participated in the movement to desegregate schools. Her own biracial children were crowded into classrooms with more than 50 kids.

By 1976, she and her husband had quietly grown apart and decided to divorce. Ironically, Dean met and married her soul mate and second husband in the same year. Al Traugott was also recently separated from his wife, and unknown to both of them, had lived only two blocks away from Dean in the same Chicago neighborhood. The politically active Traugott left a business career to support labor unions, and when he and Dean joined hands, they also joined forces.

In 1978, the duo moved to San Jose and became stalwarts in the South Bay activist community. Two years later, they founded with a handful of other volunteers the Labor Committee on El Salvador and Central America (LACES), which opposed U.S. foreign policy in repressive Central American governments. Over the course of 20 years the group eventually broadened its focus to include domestic, social and economic issues.

With LACES, Dean and Traugott organized protests and networked among labor unions and other community groups. "Al and Roz were at every event," remembers Lisa Feldberg, longtime friend and member of the LACES steering committee. She would see them behind a literature table, handing out fliers, books, buttons, bumper stickers and T-shirts.

Today in her east San Jose home, Dean recounts her personal and political victories. A framed poster of Lenin hangs on her living room wall next to a humorous caricature of Traugott, which he never liked and she only put up after he died in 2002. She points out a photo of the real Traugott, with warm eyes and wavy grey hair, standing next to her at a holiday peace fair.

A year after the couple's arrival, Dean had applied for a position as a drill press operator at FMC, an SJ defense plant. But the company rejected Dean's application, though she says she was fully qualified for the job. The position remained open for months afterward.

Just as her suspicion was mounting, she received a court letter asking her to participate in a gender discrimination class action lawsuit against FMC. "Well, lo and behold!" Dean exclaims. She leapt at the chance and encouraged other women to come forward. "The best protection is to be public," she told them, "If you let everyone know what's going on, they have a harder time messing with you."

Cynthia Rice, Dean's attorney who now works in San Francisco, says there were at least 100 hearings, starting in 1982. Rice remembers many women "falling off the radar screen" as the lawsuit dragged on, but Dean stayed with the case and eventually won a significant settlement.

Her leadership would carry over to many other projects. Alice Cox of the San Jose Peace Center, who worked with Dean throughout the 1980s and 1990s, remembers her skill at chairing meetings. "She'll take on anybody, small gatherings or huge crowds," Cox says. "And she doesn't let a lot of tomfoolery happen."

Heart Attack

At First Christian Church in downtown San Jose, the steering committee for Save San Jose Medical Center Coalition gathers to prepare for the hospital debate at council. About 15 people are present—most, it is safe to say, are more than 50 years old. Sitting in a circle, they pass around a tub of almond cookies as they listen to Dean read the agenda.

Dean nibbles on a cookie as she runs the meeting, gracefully inviting comments and keeping things on track. She jots down each point of discussion, repeating words softly under her breath as she writes. Dean has taken over the primary leadership role since Traugott's death, and many in the steering committee are impressed with her ability to shoulder the extra responsibility while grieving.

Sandy Perry, an administrative assistant, says Dean is "wonderful to work with—very democratic and inclusive." As the coalition has expanded in the past few years, he says she's kept it together with a "real spirit of cooperation."

It is Traugott's death that has inspired Dean to work harder. Her husband suffered a heart attack as the coalition was preparing for a rally in front of the Santa Clara County Building. At the time, the group was still trying to find money for the closure impact study. In a symbolic coincidence, Traugott was rushed to San Jose Medical Center and died the next day.

The incident demonstrated that the downtown hospital was not just a convenience; its location was a life and death matter for some patients. Moreover, as the coalition has presented from the beginning, SJMC serves a disproportionate number of low-income people, senior citizens and minorities.

In the summer of Traugott's death, the coalition began to expand its reach among community groups, including the University Neighborhoods Coalition and the Thirteenth Street Neighborhood Advisory Council. Finally in 2003, two years after the city agreed to fund half of the impact study, the county committed to the other half. Dean joined an advisory committee to aid consultant Henry Zaretsky while his research team studied the consequences of shuttering SJMC.

Though the coalition was unprepared for HCA's decision to close SJMC prematurely, Dean and several other activists say they weren't surprised. They never trusted the health corporation, based in Nashville, Tenn., whose background is tainted with Medicare fraud.

Still, the results of the study show how urgent the coalition's campaign is. "We need our elected officials to be firm on these monster corporations.," coalition member Socorro Reyes-McCord says.

Hands Off

Inside council chambers, the investigation of the Cisco contract for City Hall has eaten up roughly three hours of Tuesday's meeting. Coalition supporters have begun to slouch in their chairs. But the mood lifts as Zaretsky is called to make his presentation. At least 15 "Save SJMC" signs rise in the air.

The major impacts of closing SJMC, Zaretsky explains, include losing a crucial inner city emergency room and surrounding doctors' offices, which provide outpatient services for many of those who cannot drive to the nearest hospital, Regional Medical Center.

In addition, Regional is unable to accommodate the significant percentage of Medi-Cal patients from SJMC. That leaves only one local option for people dependent on the government program: Valley Medical Center. What's more, aside from Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, Valley Medical is the only remaining trauma center in San Jose, though spokesperson Joy Alexiou says the hospital has beefed up its staff to prepare for an increase in patients.

Zaretsky also predicts a hospital bed shortage between 2010 and 2020, which means the city needs to take action now if a new facility will be established within the next five years. There might be significant obstacles in achieving this. In Chavez's conversations with Steve Dixon, former CEO of San Jose Medical Center, she was informed that in the spirit of minimizing competition, HCA would not sell the property to be used as another hospital.

Dean points out the dilemma of corporate interest trumping one of the community's most basic needs. At the podium, she urges city officials to take possession of SJMC's land.

And councilmembers do seem ready to take some initiative. Chavez proposes a memorandum to accept Zaretsky's findings and begin discussions with health care providers to meet the downtown area's anticipated needs. The council passes the motion unanimously and plans to discuss the next steps in 30 days.

Dean quietly shuffles out of the council chamber with the rest of the supporters. She begins dismantling the group's display in the hallway and checks in with other members. Through it all a satisfied expression lights up her face. The hospital may have closed, but HCA may finally realize it was messing with the wrong woman.


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From the January 19-25, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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