A year ago workers at the Northwest Health Center evacuated an examining room because "the termites came out in droves. They were flying around the patient's head," said a center administrator.
Four months ago, Glenn T. Foster, an X-ray technician, fell in a hole in the developing room floor, injuring his head and neck. "I was out, off and on, two months," said Foster.
The health center was opened 21 years ago to provide free, comprehensive health care to lower income District residents. Since then times have changed and so has the center. Costs have risen and the 72-year-old building has deteriorated to such an extent that patients and workers are sometimes endangered, according to the claims of several employees.
Today the health center is no longer free, nor are all the patients lower income. Clinic personnel said many of the 400 to 450 people served daily are professionals from private industry and government agencies. They come from the District as well as from nearby suburbs.
Medical costs begin at $12.50 for specialized clinic visits, and go up to $42.25 for general medical workups for patients aged 13 and over.
In the recesses of the basement, dampened with a recent rain, works Frederick C. Garner, an X-ray file clerk. He's as efficient as a man with only one arm and half a million X-ray tapes to move around can be.
"If I'm off, no one else does the work," said Garner, explaining that two co-workers quit several years ago and were never replaced. "I've been with it for the last four years. I figure if no one else will stick with it, I will."
But sticking with it isn't easy, he said. The basement floods after a hard rain and water seeps through the porous walls, he said. Dampness and puddles persist for several days. These conditions, coupled with his asthma and epilepsy, keep him from working as often and efficiently as he would like, he said.
"I've been to the top, everywhere asking for help, but they tell me 'no money,'" he said.
Consequently the files are out of order, X-ray tapes are lost and new X-rays aren't sent out for weeks while comparison tapes are sought. They usually never materialize, he said.
Garner is also disturbed by the rats.
"They have big rats around here, as big as squirrels. This summer they sat up in the windows. There's poison all around, but one of them could get in the files. I could reach in there and get bit." Garner shudders as he speaks.
In an X-ray room on the first floor, Marcia Randolph surveys a dirty, lopsided venetian blind hanging from a window. The other window is bare. Randolph is one of two X-ray technicians who serve the clinic, back up the one technician at the area C health center in Southeast, and do X-rays once a week at the Rehabilitation Center for Alcoholics.
She said the clinic averages 75 to a 100 X-rays a day and on busy days there are more. With only two technicians to handle the volume, X-ray results usually take seven to 10 days.
"I can't say there have been any improvements," said Randolph, as she recalled her 11 years at the clinic. Then remembering one, she said that the clinic was recently painted.
Patients are "usually happy to get out of here. We tore sheets to make curtains," she said pointing to the grey-white sheets dragging on the floor in front of the dressing cubicles. "We've been ordering curtains five, six years now but we can't get them.
"Two years ago we had to close X-ray down and leave through the back door because the termites were so thick. You couldn't get through the doorway at all. They had to cordon off the whole area." Randolph said patients have also been attacked by termites recently.
"Now they're not so bad. They come out around 10 a.m., like clockwork," she added.
A supervisor on the third floor pointed to termites on her desk. A flyswatter was nearby.
"We have no screens. They took them away when they installed the air conditioning," she said. "So now we're swatting yellow jackets and bees during the spring and fall when we open the windows and the air conditioning isn't on."
While other workers fight termites and bees, John t. Heath contends with squirrels in his office ceiling.
"I think it's an insult for a health facility," he said, pointing to the squirrel droppings on his ceiling and desk. Heath, an administrator in the Venereal Disease Control unit, said he'd had problems with squirrels and rats for more than a year. The rats are under control but squirrels remain a problem, he said.
"It takes away from your professional bearing and outlook, you lose much of it as soon as you walk in the building," he said.
"Every now and then a patient will complain. Those really concerned don't come back. But too many of the people who have come here have not known other types of facilities," Heath said.
Where termites and other vermin have not caused damage, water has A year-old leak from an air conditioner in the X-ray developing room rotted out the floor where technician Foster was injured in a fall, said James T. Powell, director of the department.
Powell also said the room was so poorly ventilated that the technicians couldn't work there for long periods of time.
"Water was backing up into the darkroom," he said. "We put in several requests but nothing was done. The more complaints we made the less help we got."
Recently carpenters began replacing the floor.
"It feels like it's holding good," said one of the two carpenters as he stomped on the floor. "But this building has a lot of termites and the floor was completely gone. It'll probably go again.""I've been working around here a year," said his partner. "I suspect termites are probably all the way through the building. I wouldn't think it was worth repairing. Too many things are bad."
"You should see the (staff) ladies room downstairs in the basement," said his co-worker. "They want us to put in a drop ceiling, but the floor joists are all eaten up. The ceiling's just going to hide it."
Harold Taylor, custodial foreman for the building said he was going to halt work on the ceiling because of the weakened structure.
Taylor said the clinic roof had been repaired four times and the end wasn't in sight. It began to leak at the beginning of the year, he said. By June falling plaster and leaks had made the area so hazardous that the visiting nurses located there were moved to other areas in the hospital.