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New $60 million hospital opens in Harford County

With an assembly-line transfer of patients in the chilly dawn, the first new hospital in the Baltimore region in more than 25 years opened in Harford County yesterday.

The $60.6-million Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air opened to the public at 6 a.m., replacing Fallston General Hospital, built in 1974.

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Wrapped in blankets against a crisp wind, 49 patients were wheeled one at a time on stretchers down the blue and white, utilitarian corridors of the old hospital, with nurses, medicine and sometimes oxygen and life-support systems in tow. In a five-hour rolling relay of 22 ambulances from Baltimore, Harford, Cecil and Anne Arundel counties, Baltimore City and two private companies, the patients were transported to the mauve- and pastel-colored suites of the new facility about four miles away.

"This is history. This is a page in the book," Richard Brooks, chief operating officer of Hart to Heart Ambulance Co., told his staff of paramedics and emergency medical technicians before the patients were moved. "It is up to us to make this a safe event."

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The move, which several officials and employees called a "once-in-a-lifetime event," also drew spectators. Among them were officials from a hospital in Worcester, England, that will move soon and from Anne Arundel Medical Center, which will complete its move out of downtown Annapolis to nearby Parole in spring 2002.

Linda S. Widra, president of Upper Chesapeake Health hospitals, which includes the new facility and Harford Memorial in Havre de Grace, characterized the move as "bittersweet" and invoked the famous first line of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" in her early morning pep talk to staff.

"It's the best of times for us today because we are about to take a step forward into the future of health care," she said. But she acknowledged that many employees have fond memories of Fallston General.

"I've been here for 10 years, and I'm sad to leave," said Linda Houchens, a registered nurse in the surgical oncology unit as she helped with the transport of patients. "But it is exciting. We need the room. We've just grown out of our bounds here."

The new 225,000-square foot medical center at Route 24 and West MacPhail Road features 120 private rooms with private bathrooms and showers and day-beds for 24-hour family visitation. It also includes childbirth rooms, a cardiac care center, a large emergency department with a separate pediatric treatment area and technologically advanced imaging systems. But it will have 99 fewer beds than Fallston, which had 219 beds in semiprivate rooms, reflecting the shift in the industry away from inpatient care.

A separate $29 million ambulatory care center with outpatient services and an existing 30,000-square-foot physicians' office building also are part of the 50-acre campus on the edge of Bel Air. The 35-acre Fallston campus off U.S. 1 is for sale.

"It was apparent that [Fallston General] had served its useful life," said Lyle Sheldon, president and chief executive of Upper Chesapeake Health. "The county has grown considerably over the last 20 years. We needed to have the type of facility that was more along the lines of what people were used to in the Baltimore metropolitan area."

Sheldon said the new hospital's obstetrics and pediatrics units are particularly important. Previously, obstetric services were only available at Harford Memorial. Because of the long drive to that facility from the county's most populous areas, among other factors, 80 percent of mothers in Harford delivered their children outside the county, in Baltimore County or elsewhere, he said.

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Sheldon said he hopes some of the hospital's perks will reverse that trend and draw patients from outside of the county. The hospital's decor is similar to a hotel - with marble floors and pastel carpeting, a lobby fountain, grand staircase and art-lined walls. The hospital features three gardens named for what they are supposed to encourage: meditation, inspiration and reflection. It is a stark contrast to Fallston General, where the walls of patient rooms were made of cinderblock.

Erlene Fogus, 73, of White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., was the first Fallston patient to move to the new facility. It's wonderful," she said. "It's a better place - bigger, neater, a whole lot nicer."



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