1976 Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital

An aerial photo from July 1976 shows early progress on construction of the Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital, known now as Laurel Regional Hospital. (1976 file photo, Laurel Leader / May 7, 2013)

Beltsville native Pat Penkala doesn't remember much about May 4, 1978, her first day as an employee at Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital and just three days after the hospital admitted its first patient.

"I was young, the hospital was quiet," Penkala said shrugging off a smile.

But between Penkala's first day as a data processor and now, she has an encyclopedia of memories from her days inside the hospital walls.

"(The employees) became very close very quickly, and that has stayed throughout the 35 years," she said. "There is a kind of a family feel here."

On May 1, members of the hospital "family" and its extended, greater Laurel family gathered to celebrate the 35th anniversary of what is now called Laurel Regional Hospital, which opened on the same date in 1978.

"This is a great hospital," said Mayor Craig Moe, who read a proclamation marking the hospital's commitment to the community. "Although it's right outside the city limits, I'm always very proud to talk about Laurel Regional Hospital."

In its first year, Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital activated 102 of its 236 beds and admitted approximately 21,000 patients.

Last year, the hospital served more than 45,000 patients, and it now boasts a staff of 1,000, nearly three times the size of the original hospital staff.

And while the hospital has prospered over the years, it's also had its fair share of hard times as well, including a stretch in the early 2000s where the hospital's finances were on life support due to apparent mismanagement by the hospital's operating company, Dimensions Healthcare Corp.

"I've seen a number of changes occur a midst these walls," said City Council President Fred Smalls, who has served on the hospital's board of directors for the past nine years and is the current chair. "But I never lost my sense of pride for being a part of this system."

Smalls extended the family metaphor when crediting the community's continued support of the hospital, despite its spotty reputation and financial woes.

"It's kind of like having a family member that you sometimes may be critical of, but it's your family member and you fight for that person," Smalls said. "There have been trying times. There have been times where the community might not have held the hospital in the highest favor. But never once has the community ever wavered in support for the hospital."

The bulk of the hospital's difficulties have come in the last decade, as the hospital suffered financially along with the rest of the Prince George's County healthcare system, which includes Prince George's Hospital Center and Bowie Health Center, due to Dimensions mismanagement.

Dimensions problems were so bad — they ran a $54 million deficit for the Prince George's system between 1999 and 2004 — that an oversight committee recommended the county sever ties with the organization in February 2005.

Dr. Gita Shah, who began practicing at the hospital in 1980, said the biggest blow was the exodus of physicians, some of whom packed their bags reluctantly.

"There was a time in 2007 when every day, they were talking to close this hospital," said Shah, a Laurel resident who served as the hospital's chief of medicine from July 2007 to December 2008.

"My friends in the medical community laughed," Shah said. "They said 'You are going to be chief of medicine of what?' "

Thanks, in part, to a partnership between Dimensions and the University of Maryland Medical System, the hospital appears to be on the road to recovery. The collaboration, which began in 2011, saw the surrender of the hospital's emergency room to the oversight of UMD doctors.

Now, as the hospital looks to bounce back, Shah, who was named as chief of outreach and programming for women's health, is hoping she has the last laugh.

An expansion era