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‘We’re just getting started’: LIJ Forest Hills Hospital celebrates 70th anniversary

Aug. 4, 2023 By Carlotta Mohamed

To commemorate LIJ Forest Hills Hospital’s 70th anniversary, current and former staff held a celebration on Wednesday, Aug. 2, recalling memories through videos and speeches at the hospital which has been committed to meeting the health care needs of the Queens community. 

A large two-tier cake with an aerial image of upwards of 150 employees forming the number “70” was created for the event, and City Councilwoman Lynn Schulman presented a proclamation to the hospital. 

Lorraine Chambers Lewis, executive director of LIJ Forest Hills, is flanked by John D’Angelo, MD, senior vice president and regional executive director for Northwell Health’s Central Region, and Councilmember Lynn Schulman (D-Forest Hills), as she prepares to cut the hospital’s anniversary cake.(Courtesy of Northwell Health)

Special guests included Lee Solomon, a 96-year-old woman who has volunteered at the hospital for more than 30 years and considers the staff family.

LIJ Forest Hills executive assistant Olga Yakubova and long-time volunteer Lee Solomon.(Courtesy of Northwell Health)

Irish musician Allen Gogarty performed during the celebration as a way to say “thank you” to the hospital’s medical team for saving his life after a massive heart attack left him without a pulse for 23 minutes in December. 

Heart patient and musician Allen Gogarty of Glendale performs during LIJ Forest Hills 70th anniversary celebration as a way to say “thank you” to the hospital for saving his life.(Courtesy of Northwell Health)

Although the owners and name have changed over the decades – Forest Hills General, LaGuardia Hospital, North Shore University at Forest Hills, Forest Hills Hospital and its current moniker Long Island Jewish (LIJ) Forest Hills – the mission to serve remains the same.

“We have come so far and we’re just getting started,” said Lorraine Chambers Lewis, PA-C, executive director of the hospital. “LIJ Forest Hills began as a small community hospital in 1953 and has grown to one offering a multitude of clinical programs that have garnered many accolades including being the only hospital in Queens to currently have an ‘A’ rating for patient safety from the Leapfrog Group.”

Debuting as Forest Hills General, it was built as a privately-owned 150-bed, seven-story hospital for a cost of $1,750,000. A New York Times article at that time quoted Dr. William Benenson, president of the Queens County Medical Society, praised the private institution as filling “a crying need that city hospitals have failed to meet.” 

An architect’s rendering of the original Forest Hills General Hospital circa early 1950s.(Courtesy of Northwell Health)

A decade later, an insurance scandal shuttered the hospital in November 1963. Months later it would reopen as LaGuardia Hospital under the management of Health Insurance Plan (HIP). From 1964 to 1996, HIP ran the community hospital undertaking two large scale expansions of the building in 1971 and 1974 that would add another three floors and increase the patient bed count to 300.

By 1996, the hospital was not doing well financially and had closed three units. This would lead to another owner, North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, and a name change.

“Around that time we probably had a census of about 60 patients,” said Jerry Scherer, who began his career as an engineer at the hospital in 1978. “Since North Shore took over, there have been so many improvements that have occurred in this facility.”

The hospital’s new name became North Shore University Hospital at Forest Hills and it was now part of the North Shore Health System. A year later, North Shore merged with Long Island Jewish Medical Center to become North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System (now Northwell Health).

In 2006, the hospital’s name was shortened to Forest Hills Hospital and was amended to the current name 10 years later.

Nearly 150 employees of LIJ Forest Hills form the number “70” on the 3rd floor parking garage of the hospital to mark the building’s platinum anniversary.(Courtesy of Northwell Health)

Denise Waddy, BSN, RN, started her career at the hospital in 1999 as a per diem admitting clerk and went on to become the current manager for patient care in the surgery department. She marveled at the changes the hospital has gone through over the years.

“I’ve been in surgery in the OR since 2008,” Waddy said. “I’ve seen a growing neuroscience specialty. I’ve seen the birth of the robotics program because we didn’t have that level of technology incorporated into surgery before.”

In addition to hospital transformations, both Waddy and Scherer have experienced personal ones as well. Scherer, who retired in 2021 as senior administrative director of facilities, met his future wife at the hospital, and their daughter was born there in 1991. Likewise, Waddy gave birth to her son at the hospital because she trusted in the level of care she would receive.

“I believe that LIJ Forest Hills is the little engine that could,” Waddy said. “It’s a broad mix of people here, just like you see in Queens itself. It’s very representative of the community – the variety of the employees and the patients.” 

While the emphasis of the 70th anniversary celebration was on milestones inside the hospital, Ms. Chambers Lewis was quick to point out that a lot is happening outside of the building, as well.

“We have tremendous efforts in community outreach, going into different communities and neighborhoods and servicing people where they are and letting them know about LIJ Forest Hills,” Lewis said. “We are LIJ Forest Hills. We are Queens.”

LIJ Forest Hills robotic surgery program has three da Vinci surgical robots for bariatric, gynecologic, urologic and cancer surgeries and recently added a Mako robot for orthopedic surgeries. The hospital is set to be designated as a Center of Excellence for Robotic Surgery in the fall. 

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