Marianne Degnan, the county's maternity program manager, figured a tour of the Freetown Health Clinic would make it clear why the county had to move it to new quarters.
Squeezing past cramped offices where clinic nurses do paperwork, she entered the kitchen. On one side, staff members make lunch. On the other, they process pregnancy tests. Without a laboratory, the kitchen serves as both.
Next stop, two small bathrooms. One serves the clinic's 650 patients, while the other has been converted into a blood-drawing area. A board over the toilet is a make-shift table.
On to the counseling cubbyholes, so small only two chairs can fit inside -- one for the mother and one for the counselor. If a father wants to participate, he sits in the hallway.
But on July 22, the shabby Freetown center will close its doors after having served thousands of North County residents in its maternity and family planning clinics. The county Health Department is merging the Freetown operation and the tiny Friendship Area Health Center on Camp Meade Road at spacious, newly renovated offices at 791 Aquahart Road, behind the Harundale Mall.
Dr. Harry Curland, deputy director for Maternal and Child Health, said clients should feel better about receiving services at the professional-looking, tastefully decorated offices.
"It's about time our patients were treated like any other patient," he said. "We've always had to make due with whatever people gave us. But just because [our clients] have lower incomes, they shouldn't have to go to a place that looks terrible."
The new North County Health Services Center, which will occupy the entire second floor of the building on Aquahart, is more than twice the size of the two smaller centers combined. The center, which is still being renovated, has private offices and cubicles for counseling, so patients don't have to worry about confidentiality, he said. The maternity and family planning programs have modern examination rooms and laboratories.
Some of the additional space at the new site will be used for a North County children's dental clinic, serving patients ages 3 to 21. Now, the county's only dental clinic is at the main Health Department building in Annapolis. The county has hired two new dentists to work at the North County center.
The center will provide 3,000 square feet for the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), said program manager Ellen Hisamoto, who had gotten used to running her program like a nomad.
"We are thrilled with this move," she exclaimed, noting that Friendship and Freetown have been so crowded that WIC had no space of its own.
Nutrition and breast-feeding classes had to be given in the waiting area. And on voucher pickup days, more than 500 clients had to pack into a reception area designed for fewer than 50.
Ms. Degnan said the new center will be easier for clients to get to since many do not have cars. The Aquahart Road building is on two bus lines; neither Freetown or Friendship had bus service.
Although the Freetown Center opened 12 years ago as a satellite clinic to serve Freetown Village, it has evolved far beyond that over the years, she said. The center now serves clients from about one-third of the county.
Fewer than 5 percent actually live in Freetown Village.
"You see how makeshift this all is. Despite it all, I think we've managed to give very good care," Ms. Degnan said. "But we can give much better care when we have some confidential space for the clients."
The Health Department plans to have an open house once it settles in at the new center, probably in late August or early September, said Ms. Degnan.
The staffs of Friendship and Freetown -- about 30 employees -- will be reassigned to the new center over the first two weeks of August. Freetown clinics, which end July 22, will resume Aug. 1. Friendship clinics, ending Aug. 5, start up again Aug. 15.
Dr. Curland said the Health Department considered four sites for the center, including the old Robinson's Building in the center of Glen Burnie, but the Fedder Co. offered the best deal and most convenient location for clients.