Leaving Home

For the patients and staff of Church Hospital and the residents of Church Home, it's time to say goodbye to the 142-year-old institution. But not necessarily to each other.

November 01, 1999|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

Church Home and Church Hospital are closing, and Agnes Slezak can't decide what to bake.

She's 73, and she wants to bring a little something to the gals who have taken such good care of her husband. He's 77. They've been coming to the hospital since the 1980s, and in the last few years, as often as twice a week.

Agnes brought a million-dollar pound cake once. Another time, it was a pear delight, and everyone wanted the recipe, even the doctors. But this time is different; this visit will be the last. Church Hospital closes today, the retirement home within eight months. After 142 years, there's no money left to be made.

Ask patients like the Slezaks what Baltimore loses. Ask the nurse who has worked there 34 years. Ask the elderly schoolteacher who lives in the retirement home. They will say Church is irreplaceable.

But there's another story there, too. It's about people sticking together. That's one thing no corporate closing will ever take away.

John Slezak looks pale. His body doesn't make enough red blood cells, and his coloring gives him away. So every Monday, Agnes drives him to Church Hospital for his blood test, and every Tuesday, without fail, she brings him back for a transfusion.

Doctors diagnosed his anemia in 1984, after he arrived at the emergency room in the back of an ambulance.

John was a tool maker most his life, except for a few years in the 1940s, when he was a soldier. He fought the Japanese from a bunker in Burma until a shell struck his gun, and the magazine exploded. The blast sprayed his face, and there's still shrapnel in his eye, buried under a cataract now.

John married Agnes after he returned to the States. They raised four children and, for most of their 52 years together, didn't need hospitals. But now their arthritis is so bad they crawl up the stairs on their hands and knees.

Home for the Slezaks is a rowhouse in Canton, seven minutes from the hospital, 10 in traffic.

John used to drive, but now his hands hurt too much to grip the wheel. The arthritis in Agnes's leg aches when she drives, so they're closer to needing the bus. Their children beg them to move to Bel Air, but they don't want to leave their doctors or their hospital.

They could have gone to bigger, better-known Johns Hopkins a few blocks away, but at Church they knew the security guards, admissions clerks and the gals who drew John's blood. One gal knew their phone number by heart.

Agnes baked as a show of appreciation. Other patients brought funeral home calendars, key chains, Whitman's chocolates, handmade tote bags, Christmas ornaments, even coffee filters so the employee lounge would never run out.

Tuesday was John's last transfusion. Agnes drove. She helped him upstairs because arthritis makes him wobbly. She came back two liters of blood later to take him home.

She left flour cookies with powdered sugar. They were her way of saying goodbye.

Nurse Evelyn Krebs has worked at Church Hospital for 34 years. The famous moments -- treating Union soldiers and the death of Edgar Allan Poe -- came before her time. Still, she knows this place by heart.

Evelyn saw Church for the first time when she was 5. Her mother walked her up North Broadway to the brick building with the wide white porches. She had tonsillitis, so to soothe her, one of the nurses put her cap on Evelyn's head.

In high school, she grew into a "pinkie" uniform of her own. She made up her mind, between taking temperatures and changing beds, to become a nurse. She enrolled in Church's nursing school and, for three years, lived with fellow students in a house across the street. Every morning, student nurses gathered in the rotunda for prayers. The service was broadcast in every room.

Evelyn graduated, married, started work here, and years later, came as a patient. She delivered her daughter Jennifer in 1974 and would have had Amy here, but by 1975, the maternity ward had closed.

The East Baltimore neighborhoods around Church were changing. Young families left for the suburbs, old people died in the city, their houses sat empty until Hopkins gobbled them up.

Evelyn watched the hospital phase out its doctor residency program, close its nursing school, shut down its obstetrics clinic. Too few patients and competition -- that was the problem in the '70s and '80s. That's still the problem. Last year, Church lost $3 million.

Evelyn didn't want to see what was happening. Church had always been good to her. They let her work weekends to be home with her kids; they hired her daughter as a nurse for a couple of years. When her husband needed surgery, he came here. Her brother-in-law came with breathing problems, her daughter with mononucleosis, her father with liver failure. He died here in 1977.

A mile away in Highlandtown, in the house where Evelyn grew up, an old lady no longer felt safe. Evelyn brought her mother Rose to Church's retirement home three years ago.

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