Patients lament loss of hospital; They say Church provided care with a personal touch


The chaplain, the nurse, the shop owner, the man who just had his well-worn eyes "taken good care of" by surgery -- all speak in the same subdued tone.

They agree on this: losing community-oriented Church Hospital is a body blow as painful to its struggling East Baltimore neighborhood as it is to the staff that has spent years trying to keep the hospital afloat.

News of Church Hospital's closing, anticipated for months, was made official by the hospital's parent company last week.

The 142-year-old institution -- which suffers the misfortune of being only two blocks from the internationally renowned, 110-year-old Johns Hopkins Hospital -- will close completely next year. The announcement was met with sadness and tears at the hospital and in the surrounding Washington Hill neighborhood.

"Man, it seriously hurts," said Thomas Lewis, who was visiting the hospital Thursday for a follow-up after his recent cataract surgery. "Now what am I gonna do? Where am I gonna go for a doctor?"

Lewis first went to Church Hospital in 1976 for treatment of his knee. Like many people who live in the area, he says he could have gone to Hopkins, but the care at Church, he said, has a more personal touch.

"They've got more technology at Hopkins but when you go there I guess you feel kind of like a number," Lewis said. "Here I feel treated more like family. I like it that way."

The unemployed auto mechanic, who lives in Canton, said he has known for some time that the hospital was struggling. Much of the hospital is empty. More times than not, he said, a patient can walk in the emergency room, see a doctor and leave with a prescription in an hour.

A decade ago, the place was packed. "Lines out the door sometimes," Lewis recalled. "They did good business."

Church Hospital is closing precisely because business has slowed to a trickle, notes hospital spokeswoman Joanna Varsalone. Church's acute-care unit, the primary entry point for the hospital's assisted-living center and nursing home, has seen a huge decline in visits, a result of East Baltimore's population loss and competition from Hopkins.

About a decade ago, the hospital was licensed for more than 400 beds, said Varsalone. Church frequently operated at or near capacity. Today, the hospital is licensed for 144 beds but on average less than half of them are full, a prime factor in the hospital's reported $3 million loss last year. "With acute care struggling, the hospital has been barely holding on," she said. "We were all bracing for bad news. The announcement, when it came, was just depressing."

The Rev. Nick McDonald, Church's Episcopalian chaplain, is dealing head-on with the fallout from the hospital's closing. McDonald was hired in 1993, just after 125 managers were fired in a cost-cutting move. His goal is simple: stay the course, keep counseling, keep offering guidance to patients and staff through a turbulent time.

"There's deep uncertainty here. People on staff don't know where they are going, patients are worried [about] where they will get care," he said. "But I'm going to be here through it all, until the last patient walks out the door on the last day."

McDonald worries about how the neighborhood will withstand the loss -- economically, spiritually and emotionally. Jobs stand to be lost. Businesses in a section of Baltimore searching for an economic pulse will take a hit.

Varsalone said many of the hospital's 800 employees will be offered the opportunity to transfer to one of the six other hospitals operated by MedStarHealth, the Columbia company that owns Church Hospital. But many others have no idea from where they will draw a paycheck after Church closes.

About a third of the staff, according to Highlandtown resident and nurse Kathryn Porter, live in East Baltimore. "It'll be another hit on the economy here," she said, lamenting the loss of jobs and agreeing that the area is becoming almost numb to news of businesses closing.

A block south of the hospital, in the well-worn office of Barre Monument Co., on East Baltimore Street, owner Veronica Conley reminisced about the hospital's connection to its neighborhood.

"It's bittersweet," said Conley, who has worked at the shop since 1946. She remembers when, decades ago, her son fell off his bike and was treated for a broken arm. And when her daughter, then 15, worked at the hospital as a "pinkie," a nursing trainee.

She reflects on the "cycle of life" that has taken place at the hospital. The babies born at Church. The two family members who died there. Her husband, treated at Church 21 years ago, just before his death.

"Not a lot of people who can afford to go to other hospitals go there anymore," said the gray-haired woman with thick glasses. "But that doesn't make losing it any better. We just can't afford to keep letting go of places like this."

Pub Date: 9/27/99

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