Donors celebrate Sheppard Pratt expansion

Former first lady is guest after $8 million is raised

November 19, 2003|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

If every community had a Sheppard Pratt Health System, Rosalynn Carter says, her life's work advocating for the mentally ill would be complete.

But few communities do. And in this time of budget shortfalls, state-of-the-art psychiatric hospitals aren't likely to start cropping up - which makes Sheppard Pratt's $90 million construction project all the more remarkable, the former first lady said yesterday at a ceremony to thank the donors helping to make it possible.

"The really special programs like the ones here at Sheppard Pratt are few and far between," said Carter, who was the honorary chairwoman of her husband Jimmy Carter's presidential mental health commission and was named Volunteer of the Decade by the National Mental Health Association in 1980. She said Sheppard Pratt's new facility "represents an amazing new era in the treatment of people with mental illness."

Sheppard Pratt officials hope their expansion and renovation project will make its 110-acre Towson campus the leading facility of its kind in the United States. Construction began with a quiet groundbreaking in May, and is scheduled for completion in February 2005.

The hospital's original Norman Revival-style buildings were considered revolutionary when their construction was completed in 1891 because they separated patients according to illness type. The new building, 240,000 square feet designed to complement the old architecture, will feature 192 private bedrooms and bathrooms for patients, many of whom must now live together.

Funding for the project comes from a combination of donations, equity contributions and the sale of tax-free bonds issued through the Maryland Health and Higher Educational Facilities Authority. Sheppard Pratt is trying to raise $15 million by the end of 2005, and has made it more than halfway to that goal.

As the sun went down last night, about 150 people, many of whom have contributed to the $8 million raised thus far, sipped wine and champagne and munched hors d'oeuvres inside the hospital's chilly power plant - soon to be converted into physician offices.

With guests signing a steel beam that will become a part of the new building, the band played "Georgia On My Mind" in Carter's honor. Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich, making her second visit to the hospital this fall, apologized for keeping her coat on, explaining that she can't take any medicine if she catches a cold five months' pregnant.

In an hourlong ceremony, public officials and Sheppard Pratt administrators and board members spoke of the many challenges facing mental health care, from inadequate Medicare reimbursement to the expiration of a law requiring parity for lifetime limits on mental and physical health care.

"Mental illnesses are real illnesses deserving of the same treatment as any other disease," said Myrna Cardin, representing her husband, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 3rd District Democrat.

The event, however, was less a policy discussion than it was the celebration of a work in progress.

"I can't wait until it's open and the halls are full of people," Carter said.

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