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Drug And Alcohol Treatment Center Founder Fears For Its Future


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The McDonald Center is one of San Diego's most successful and enduring drug and alcohol treatment centers, but construction plans to bring the Scripps La Jolla Hospital up to earthquake code could spell its demise. That has brought a strong reaction from the woman whose name the center bears.

Marianne McDonald lives in Rancho Santa Fe, where large homes are hidden behind trees at the end of long driveways. Wealth and influence have been a part of her life. Her father was one of the founders of Zenith corporation.

But tragedy has also played a role, and that tragedy has been driven by the abuse of drugs and alcohol. In 1991, her daughter Kirstie was high on LSD when she died in the company of some friends and a loaded gun.

"They ended up there that fatal evening,” says McDonald. “And they were all playing Russian roulette with a gun and Kirstie lost…I'm going to start crying now. It's hard to revisit.”

She added that her daughter wasn’t her only loss to addiction.

“I also lost my brother. He was high on drugs and alcohol and shot himself," she says.

McDonald sits a dark room in her rambling home, where the shelves are stuffed with books from floor to ceiling. She's a professor of classic literature at UCSD.

The subject of her family quickly leads to the McDonald Center. It's a drug and alcohol treatment center she helped to found 25 years ago after seeing her own family struggle with addiction.

She gave Scripps Health $2 million in seed money; she says she's given a total of $3 million over the years. McDonald once raised $100,000 for the center by selling her wine collection. The future of the center, which McDonald thought would never come to an end, is now in doubt.

"I must say after 25 years I didn’t think that it would come to this end where it's going to be torn down within two years," she says.

Gary Fybel is CEO of Scripps La Jolla Hospital. “The McDonald Center is actually located on our property where we would be building new buildings to support the hospital. The key is that we need to build new acute-care hospital buildings. And this program, which we could still maintain the program, could be located in another location," he says.

The current location is a low brick building just outside the hospital's front door. A garden in the courtyard of the McDonald Center features a stream of water and works or art. Two tables on a patio are topped with large ashtrays which are stuffed with cigarette butts. Letting clients smoke is one of those compromises you make when you treat drug addicts and alcoholics.

Around the corner, under a magnolia tree, there's a memorial to Marianne McDonald's daughter Kirstie. Gary Fybel admits there's no guarantee Scripps will find a new location for the McDonald Center. He says rebuilding the hospital campus is made urgent by SB 1953, the law that requires hospitals to either retrofit or rebuild to withstand earthquakes.

Fybel will only say the success of the McDonald Center over the years will motivate them to try to keep it going.

"It is well-known in the community, both the recovery community, the sports network, the celebrity network," he said.

Scripps might need to look to those networks as they seek new philanthropists to help the program relocate. The fate of the McDonald Center raises the question of what institutions owe to their original philanthropists. Marianne McDonald has invested her heart, her soul and her ego in the center that bears her name.

But over 25 years laws change and institutions change. Needs change too, though McDonald is convinced San Diego still needs the McDonald Center to treat its addicts and alcoholics.

"This is death for people if they don't seek treatment. But it is a disease like any other disease. It's like cancer,” says McDonald, “and you've just got to go in and find the tools to be able to cope with it."

McDonald studies Greek tragedy as an academic, and I asked her if there was a play that speaks to her the most. She said all of them do. She adds that she's written a play of her own about vampires, because vampires need blood the same way an alcoholic needs a drink.


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