Howard Hospital longtimers have seen it all

When Howard County General Hospital opened 40 years ago, even the emergency room workers had time on their hands.

"Some older Howard County residents didn't want to come there," said Bob Simonsen, a physician assistant who has worked in the hospital since before it opened. "We had to get accepted, had to win their trust.

"For a couple of weeks, it was pretty quiet," recalled Simonsen, 63, of the early days. "Even the ambulances didn't even know we were there." 

When patients showed up, he said, the staff was ready. But to get through the down times, some workers devised their own activities. For example, he said, they would wad up cast padding and use it to play baseball in the hallway.

"There was a lot of sitting around, a lot of goofing around," Simonsen said. "That didn't last long, but it was fun while it lasted."

These days, the lulls are few and far between at the hospital's emergency department: Last year, the department had 77,499 visits — more than four times as many as the first year.

Workers like Simonsen, with the county hospital from the start, recall a very different facility 40 years ago, one with fewer patients and services, but one that was like a family, where employees had more opportunities than they would have had at larger, more established hospitals.

"I call it my 'Camelot Experience,'" said Tom Schmidt, who is now a registered nurse at the hospital but started as a medical technician in 1973.

Although not a nurse or a nurse practitioner at the time when he started at the hospital, Schmidt had some of the same training and performed some of the same functions.

"The experience was pretty awesome," Schmidt said. "I got to work with Hopkins' doctors. … I saw an open heart surgery when it was in its infancy."

After he graduated from the University of Maryland School of Nursing in 1978, Schmidt went to work at Johns Hopkins Hospital. But he returned to Howard County General about 10 years later, where he is now nurse manager at the psychiatric unit.

"It was nice to come home," said Schmidt, 61, who grew up in Elkridge and lives in Ellicott City. "They've always had a strong spot in my heart."

'A lot more stress now'

Employees with the hospital at the start — only a handful still remain, according to hospital officials — say Howard County General today is barely recognizable from the facility that opened in July 1973.

Joan Becker, 64, started at the hospital 40 years ago as a part-time operator. Like the other operators, she shared a desk with employees making appointments, and in her spare time did odd jobs like pulling records for billing.

Today, Becker is the hospital's director of telecommunications. She oversees a staff of 15 operators and a full-time tech person. Her department handles not just incoming phone calls but the hospital's voice mail, pagers, beepers and more than 450 wireless phones. Not to mention the nearly constant expansions and new construction — all of which require changes in telecommunications lines.

"We were one small building back then," she said. "Now we have all these additions and towers, plus other buildings. I have moved every telephone in this hospital at one time or another."

One thing that has not changed, she said, is the unusual calls operators receive — the oddest of which are kept in journals that she might try to publish someday.

"You wouldn't believe what people ask us," she said. "Someone will call wanting to know the name of a florist near St. Agnes (Hospital). … They'll call for the name of a doctor, saying 'He's 6-foot-4 and has brown hair.' "  

Some callers, she said, even ask for directions to another hospital.

Asked about the changes he's seen, Schmidt noted the numerous services and departments that have been added — a stroke center, cardiac rehab department, new medical pavilion and the conversion of all inpatient rooms to private rooms.

"We were a pretty small little entity back then," he said. "At the beginning, we didn't even have a cafeteria." The patients' meals, he said, were handled like airline food — shipped in from elsewhere and heated up in the hospital.

"It's not just a community hospital sitting alone out here," Schmidt said.

"We had very limited services back then," Simonsen agreed. "Now, there are very few things we can't do."

Still, Simonsen said, something has been lost over the years.

"There's a lot more stress now," he said. "And a lot more rules." He mentioned specifically the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), which protects the privacy of health information. "With all the rules, it's tougher to practice medicine."

But Simonsen has no regrets about his career in medicine — and at Howard County General.

"It's been a great experience," he said. "It was a lot of fun being part of something from the ground up, and seeing it get to where it is."

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