"What then do we see for ourselves? In giving vaccines or treating runny noses or fixing broken hearts, figuratively and literally, we will continue to work with all our communities . . . .

"We will continue to place the needs of children and their families above anything else in all of our efforts, whether in the operating room or the board room or the patient room; whether administering medicine or serving food or cleaning floors or filing charts. As God's eyes and ears and hands, in His work of love, none of us will feel or act bigger or smaller than the other. We will be one."

Dr. Robert H. Parrott spoke those words on March 6, 1977, at the dedication of the new $80 million home of Children's Hospital, which he serves as director. I asked him the other day if he saw the hospital's role any differently nearly five years later.

Parrott didn't even have to mull. "Not at all," he replied. "We are still a team. We are still a community hospital. And we are popular. A good deal of the time, we're in what we call Code Purple -- trying to find beds.

"The difference five years later is the economy.

"About two years ago, I thought we were going to reach the point of having a black year (that is, a year where the hospital didn't show a loss). Now, that seems out of reach. And it affects everything we do."

The nation's economic downturn caught Children's in a sharp upturn. Since it moved from a weatherbeaten brick building at 13th and W streets NW to its present home, a strikingly modern glass-and-steel structure overlooking McMillan Reservoir, Children's has seen its annual patient volume increase by 40 percent and its average occupancy rate increase from about 60 percent to about 80 percent.

In addition, new programs and specialties have been introduced each year at the new building, along with new staff.

Two years ago, for example, there was no ear-nose-throat surgical facility at Children's. Now there's one of the best in the country. Eighteen months ago, there was no surgical sub-specialist in ophthalmology or neurosurgery. Now there is one of each on the full-time staff.

All in all, the number of full-time staff doctors at Children's increased from seven in 1960 to 53 in 1970 to 130 in 1980. Meanwhile, from 1970 to 1980, the operating budget increased from $10.2 million to $57 million. This year, the budget will approach $80 million, according to John Mallon, the administrator.

"But we're in trouble the way a lot of hospitals are in trouble," said Mallon. "We rode the wave of lots of Medicaid dollars that the federal government was spending between 1970 and 1980. We used that money to expand, and to provide care to patients who previously weren't seeking it or getting it. So now, even a small cutback presents huge problems."

Nor can all the problems be laid at the door of the federal government, or Reaganomics. Medicaid, for example, is a "matching funds" program. If you are eligible, the federal government will pay half your tab, and your home state the other half.

However, on Jan. 1, 1981, Maryland placed a "cap" of 20 days on the length of time it would pay Medicaid funds for any single hospital stay.

Fewer than 10 percent of the Maryland Medicaid patients at Children's need to spend more than 20 days in the hospital. Even so, "the impact of that one particular action we estimate to be $2 million, just since Jan. 1," Mallon said.

Where is the $2 million going to come from?

"That's a good question. You can only tighten your belt so far.

"I suppose if $2 million was the only thing we ever expected to lose, we could probably get by with belt-tightening. But I can't promise you that's all there's going to be. In fact, I'm sure that's not all there's going to be.

"I call it a modest, controlled emergency."

I call it a challenge to which the community simply must respond.

There is no denying the toughness of the times. Things cost so much that prices are sometimes almost comical.

Last week, at a newsstand in the lobby of a downtown hotel, they wanted to charge me 48 cents for a roll of Life Savers. Good sense made one of its infrequent visits to my brain, and I put the roll back in the display case, telling the cashier that she couldn't be serious.

But we can't put the problems of sick children back in any display case just because they cost an inconvenient or incredible amount of money. If it costs thousands to save a child's sight, or his life, what are we going to say? That we're sorry, but we found ourselves a little short last month?

Please give generously, and give today. Robert Parrott had a vision nearly five years ago. It's still alive. It's up to us to keep it that way.

To contribute to the campaign:

Make checks or money orders payable to Children's Hospital and mail them to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071.