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Hundreds of volunteers smooth the transition as VA patients move downtown Loch Raven facility to be nursing home


Your next household move should go this smoothly.

With the help of close to 200 military and civilian volunteers, the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center transferred 49 patients without a hitch yesterday from the old VA hospital at 3900 Loch Raven Boulevard to a ritzy new home downtown.

The patients, some too sick to walk, took the 20-minute ride in a fleet of ambulances and specially equipped buses, which were provided for the day by Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Military police in desert-camouflaged Humvees rode escort for the convoys.

"The move was beautiful," said Ezell McCormick, 78, a World War II veteran, after settling into his spacious new room. "I even took a nap on the way down here."

Three years of planning went into yesterday's opening of the $121 million, 324-bed VA medical center at 10 N. Greene St., said R. David Edwards, hospital spokesman.

Nearly 100 litter-bearers and nurses with the Army Reserve's 100th Station Hospital provided much of the muscle power for the move. Professional and volunteer ambulance crews from the city and surrounding counties also helped, transporting the more seriously ill patients.

The patients' movements and conditions were tracked by computer and two-way radio from command posts set up at each hospital. Though expected to take four hours or more, the move was wrapped up in just 3 1/2 -- partly because many patients had been transferred to other VA hospitals last week.

The six-story medical and surgical care facility downtown, under construction since 1987, replaces the 184-bed Loch Raven facility, which opened in 1952 to treat tuberculosis patients.

Some of the VA's 1,100 staff members had mixed feelings about leaving the old hospital, which officially closed its doors at 11:45 a.m.

"You had a chance to get some fresh air," said Walter Blackston, an electrician, alluding to the campus-like grounds of the Loch Raven hospital.

But the patients seemed not to mind, especially since the new hospital contains amenities the old VA did not have -- such as bedside telephones and a bathroom for each room.

"It's pleasant here," said Hartford Hamilton, 63, a Korean War veteran now fighting cancer, as he settled back to watch a basketball game on a new television set that had just been hooked up in his room. At the old hospital, wards had communal bathrooms, and pay telephones had to be wheeled on carts from room to room.

The new hospital was designed to be "patient friendly," explained Mr. Edwards, the VA spokesman. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to a posh downtown hotel, with two atriums, a lush indoor garden of ficus trees and other greenery and paintings hanging on the brightly colored walls. Every patient room has a window, with a view of either downtown or one of the atriums.

Such touches could save millions of dollars in health care costs, Mr. Edwards said. A recent study found that patients seem to recover more quickly in open, comfortable settings, and so hospital stays tend to be briefer, he noted.

Though confined to a city block, the new VA hospital has three times the floor space of its predecessor and boasts "state-of-the art" medical technology, such as X-rays stored on computer. The facility is connected by an enclosed foot bridge with the University of Maryland Medical Center, whose interns, residents and students will train there.

The new hospital has been a long time coming. Though plans for the downtown VA facility were first approved in 1976, the project was canceled in 1981 and not revived until five years later. The delay proved expensive -- the hospital cost 50 percent more than the $80 million originally projected.

George Ellis, one of the first patients admitted to the new hospital, was also among the first to be cared for at the old VA. The 75-year-old World War II veteran spent about a year at Loch Raven in 1952, and nearly two weeks ago he entered the hospital again with shortness of breath.

"In its time, it was just as modern as this one," Mr. Ellis said.

The old hospital site at Loch Raven is destined to become a nursing home, Mr. Edwards said.

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