Hospital reflects new era in VA care Patient-friendly facility dedicated today

October 04, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

People who walk into downtown Baltimore's new Veteran Affairs Medical Center may think they took a wrong turn and wound up at the Hyatt Regency Hotel by mistake.

The entrance lobby leads to not one but two sky-lighted atria, filled with a veritable jungle of ficus trees and other greenery. Red-jacketed attendants stand beside a high-tech information desk. Dual escalators whisk visitors to upper-level corridors, from which they can peer into soaring central spaces.

About all that's missing are Hyatt's trademark glass elevators.

Posh, spacious, tranquil, this 324-bed, $121 million hospital at 10 N. Greene St. is the long-awaited replacement for the 209-bed, 40-year-old VA Medical Center at 3900 Loch Raven Blvd.

On the drawing board since the mid-1970s and under construction since 1987, the six-story medical and surgical care facility will be dedicated today at 1:30 p.m.

Built by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to house inpatient, ambulatory care, diagnostic, teaching and research facilities, it also replaces an outpatient clinic on the ground level of the Fallon Federal Building in Charles Center. Staffers will begin moving in this week; patients will be treated there starting Jan. 24.

"Gorgeous, isn't it?" beams Barbara L. Gallagher, the center's director. "The concept of the atriums makes a very pleasant environment for our patients, a place that's conducive to healing. It's getting away from the old antiseptic atmosphere."

"It's the difference between the 18th century and the 21st century," marvels R. Edward Shaver, a staff nurse in the psychiatric department. "It's cleaner, nicer, warmer. I've been waiting for 10 years to move in."

Today's dedication is significant locally, statewide and within the medical industry. For staffers, it marks the culmination of nearly two decades of effort to create a state-of-the-art hospital for 100,000 veterans throughout Central Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

To city and state officials, it is an important symbol of Baltimore's emergence as a center for the life sciences. In many ways it's a bookend to the Camden Yards ballpark that opened in April -- a northern anchor for the UniversityCenter corridor that is anchored on the south by the ballpark. In between is the campus of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, which is slated to undergo $500 million of new development over the next decade.

Just as the ballpark draws people downtown, so will the medical center. In addition to 1,100 employees and 650 volunteers, there will be 25,000 patients a year. More than 750 University of Maryland residents, interns and students will train there each year. Its annual payroll is $47.6 million -- a potential bonanza for west side retailers and service providers.

"It will do a great deal to help us achieve our goal of having an economy based on the life sciences," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said of the new VA center.

On a national level, the medical center signifies a major federal investment in Baltimore, one of the last VA medical centers to be built from the ground up in this century. VA officials see it as a chance to create a new image for the agency.

"Many people think of the VA as an old soldiers' home," said R. David Edwards, chief of Voluntary Service and Public Affairs. "They don't realize we offer state-of-the-art treatment. There is a lot of specialized research and treatment coming out of the VA."

A 'hospitable hospital'

Finally, the center is part of an international trend toward the construction of more "hospitable hospitals," patient-friendly places where the environment plays a key role in promoting healing.

Besides the hotel-like ambience, other patient-friendly touches include the use of different colors on different floors so patients can orient themselves, and a third-floor "Humor Room" donated by the Jewish War Veterans. There, patients can watch videotapes of old Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy movies as part of their therapy.

"Aesthetics and environment can have a large impact on patients' recovery, so we wanted to make it homey and `f residential," Mr. Edwards said.

"All patients are anxious when they come to the hospital," Ms. Gallagher said. "It just feels good to be surrounded by greenery and soft tones. It will have a soothing, calming effect on our patients."

The center will also offer some of the most advanced treatment and diagnostic technology available. It will be the first hospital in the United States, planners say, that enables doctors and nurses to call up patients' X-rays on a computer screen, eliminating the need for film.

The physical improvements and technological advances are major reasons many staffers look forward to working there.

Night and day

The old center on Loch Raven Boulevard "doesn't even have drapes in the windows," Mr. Shaver said. "The furniture is archaic, and in many cases, the bathrooms are down the hall. Here, there's a private bathroom for every room, and a phone for every bed. It's like night and day."

Clad in blue-gray glass and earth-toned granite, the hospital covers an entire city block. One of three VA hospitals in Maryland, it is connected by a pedestrian bridge to the University of Maryland Medical Center, and the two facilities will share staff and resources. The design team included RTKL Associates Inc., Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet Inc., and Henry Adams Inc. The builder was George Hyman Construction Co.

Once it's vacated, the old building will be converted to a nursing home, with a percentage of rooms reserved for veterans. VA officials in Washington sought bids earlier this year from prospective operators and will select one soon.

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