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Celebrating 35 years, Laurel Regional Hospital plans changes

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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

Although this year marks the 35th anniversary, the genesis of the hospital dates back to 1970, when the Greater Laurel Area Hospital Council was formed to help round up community support for a potential Laurel-area hospital, followed by the creation of the Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital Auxiliary.

"There was a vision that emerged in 1969," said hospital President John Spearman, referring to the auxiliary. "It's pretty clear that the auxiliary played a huge role in driving the campaign that led to this hospital."

Since the hospital first opened its doors, the auxiliary has managed the hospital's gift shop. The auxiliary has also hosted numerous fundraisers, including an annual benefit ball.

Two years later, the county acquired 50 acres near Van Dusen and Contee roads for the hospital, and a ceremonial groundbreaking took place in 1975.

In the 1980s, the hospital expanded by opening an alcoholism treatment center, an outpatient testing center and the maternal child health unit.

The 1990s saw more expansion, including opening a center for sleep disorders, a wound care center, an on-campus medical office building and, in 1994, construction of $7.9 million expansion and renovation project, which included an expansion of the emergency room, addition of a critical care unit and the redesign of inpatient rehabilitation program.

In 2011, the hospital expanded and relocated the sleep center and wound care centers, allowing for enhanced care and services.

Women's health focus

Even though the hospital has grown, Spearman said it needs to continue to evolve if it is going to stay viable in the future.

"This is an excellent time for us to articulate a new vision for this hospital," said Spearman, who was named to the post 10 months ago.

Spearman said the key to that vision will be adding more robust programming for women's health services such as reproductive health, weight-loss programming, yoga and cancer prevention and screening programs.

"With the community growing the way it's growing, they are going to want primary care and women's health services," Spearman said. "If you get women's health services, you will get all the others after that."

However, Spearman acknowledged that it is "not an easy task," which is part of the reason why Dimensions brought in Dr. Trudy Hall as vice president of Medical Affairs and Rehabilitation Services. Hall was formerly with the University of Maryland Medical System, where she was chief medical officer for the system's University Specialty Hospital in Baltimore.

"We have the responsibility to take care of those who take care of others," Hall said regarding women's health.

Spearman also said the transformation will test the hospital's "family" ties to the Laurel community.

"Something I didn't fully appreciate when I started here, was just how deeply this community loves this hospital, and how strongly it is willing to fight for its success," Spearman said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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