Dr. Richard Schwartz was heading through Rosslyn late on the afternoon of Jan. 13 when he heard an unconfirmed reort on his car radio that a plane had crashed into the 14th Street bridge.

Schwartz, medical disaster coordinator at the National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation in Arlington, turned his car around and sped back to the hospital.

For the next three hours, he and a group of 32 physicians, 71 nurses and dozens of support personnel at the facility were on what the hospital calls Code Yellow--disaster alert--as they treated seven patients from the Air Florida plane crash.

And for the next few days and into the next week, the 147-bed hospital just off Route 395 (Shirley Highway) was the scene for bedside press conferences, family reunions, a visit by First Lady Nancy Reagan and daily status reports on the four plane passengers and one bridge victim who had been admitted to the facility.

It was nationwide attention unparalleled in the 34-year history of the hospital, which is trying hard to become known as a full-service hospital rather than an orthopedic specialty hospital.

"Thousands of people drive by the hospital every day and see the exterior on 395 and have misconceptions about us," said Edward J. Jenkins, hospital administrator. "They think we are a veterans' hospital or a facility for airmen or that we make orthopedic shoes here. Plus this area is very transient, and many new people don't know that you can come here for anything."

The hospital's role in the disaster last week may have been the catalyst for an image change in the public's eye, however.

Change actually began years ago.

"The hospital has changed in character dramatically by virtue of the demand of the community," said Schwartz, 43, a cardiologist who is also chief of medicine at the hospital.

It also has changed, according to Jenkins, to stay alive in the tough economic climate and the reality of soaring hospital costs. "Orthopedic hospitals around the country are going into other areas in order to survive," said Jenkins. "I don't know if one-specialty hospitals can keep just one specialty going anymore."

Of last week's role as the primary hospital for treatment of the crash victims, Schwartz said "the hospital was ready" as the whole staff had participated in a disaster drill just last month.

The hospital staff is very aware of the facility's proximity to National Airport, which sends virtually all emergency patients there. For the past four years, the hospital has conducted drills several times a year for disasters ranging from plane crashes and train derailments to explosions.

"We realize that we are sitting on a powder keg," Schwartz said.

Said William D. Killen, fire chief for the two metropolitan Washington airports, "We work very closely with National Orthopaedic because it's the closest hospital that we can work with from this airport."

His paramedics, Killen said, can whisk patients to the hospital from National in five to seven minutes.

Other groups also are regular users of the hospital. Southern Railways has sent the hospital several hundred employes who need rehabilitative care on the recommendation of their company's chief surgeon, Dr. Max P. Rogers. "We looked all over the country for rehabilitation hospitals," said William I. Millwood, Jr., a spokesman at the Washington headquarters of Southern Railways, a company which employs 22,000 people. "And we found one right under our nose in Virginia."

The hospital started in the late 1940s, when Dr. Otto Anderson Engh decided to expand his orthopedic clinic into a hospital to cope with the need for orthopedic and rehabilitation services for victims of polio and other crippling disorders. The Anderson Orthopaedic Hospital, a two-floor facility, was built "barn-raising style," according to Jenkins. He also said the hospital opened debt-free, thanks to donations of materials, money and labor from the local community, led by the Arlington Jaycees and the Northern Virginia Builders Association.

In 1954, Congress gave the the hospital a grant for work in rehabilitation, and that year the hospital began construction of a new wing, which opened in 1958. Another addition came in 1968, said Jenkins, when the facility's capacity was further expanded as one of the few hospitals in this region with a specialty in orthopedics, the prevention or correction of skeletal deformities and injuries of the bones, joints and muscles.

But as Arlington and Alexandria mushroomed around the hospital, it found itself dealing with a host of other health care needs. What Jenkins calls "the real turning point" for the facility came in 1978 when the hospital's board of trustees decided it was time to open a full-fledged emergency room rather than continue the part-time emergency room that Jenkins said was really "an orthopedic outpatient clinic."

"We were starting to see many people without any orthopedic problems," said Jenkins, who was named hospital administrator in 1978 at age 30. "The emergency room was a major decision by the board, and the timing was right."

"We saw years ago that there was a great potential here that we had not tapped," said Thomas C. Johnstone, president of the hospital's 15-member board of trustees and a real estate executive from Falls Church. "And we felt that to ensure the hospital's future, we needed to give the hospital some options."

Today the hospital, with a 1982 budget of $16 million, boasts special clinics for arthritis, pain, scoliosis, cardiac rehabilitation and sports medicine. It has been fully and continuously accredited since 1954 by the Joint Commission on the Accredication of Hospitals. According to Jenkins, the only major health care services not generally available at the hospital are obstetrics, general pediatrics and a locked psychiatric unit.

A problem since the expansion of the emergency room in 1978, conceded Jenkins, was how to get word of the change out to the local community. To help, he created a public relations department.

"Orthopedics isn't an everyday word," said Jenkins.

The hospital operated at 81 percent occupancy last year, however, with only 59 percent of the cases classified as of an orthopedic nature. In 1977, 80 percent of the cases were orthopedic, Jenkins said.

The job of educating the public has not been easy, hospital officials admit. For one thing, frequent name changes have proven confusing. Through the years the facility has been called the Anderson Orthopaedic Hospital, the National Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Hospital and its current name, which it's had since 1980: National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation.

Many hospital personnel would like the name changed once more--to simply National Hospital, as the facility is often called anyway.

"There is constant pressure from those of us who are not orthopedic surgeons to call it simply National Hospital," said Schwartz. Of the 43 doctors on the hospital staff, 17 are orthopedists.

The long hospital name made things difficult for Mary Shaw, director of public relations, at press conferences after the crash. She had to begin each briefing by stating the correct name of the hospital and repeating it several times. Still, many media reports had it wrong.

The staff is sensitive about some critics of the disaster relief efforts, who asked why victims who were possibly in shock weren't taken to a larger medical facility.

"If it's a choice between saving a life or sending them to the Washington Hospital Center's MedSTAR Unit a shock trauma unit , I think it was the right decision," said Shaw. "Maybe we're not a 900-bed hospital, but we could have handled 20 to 25 more victims, if they had survived the crash."

This is not the first time the hospital has made the news. Robert Ode, the oldest American hostage in Iran, recuperated there from a bout with bronchitis and exhaustion during last January's welcome-home ceremonies. And in 1980, the hospital was involved in a complex Romanian defection incident when Kristina Horodinca collapsed at National Airport while Soviet agents were trying to whisk her onto a plane. At the hospital, after an emergency room doctor realized her predicament, she was taken into custody by the State Department and later granted asylum with her family in the United States.

The Air Florida crash will not be forgotten soon at the hospital. Morale, for one thing, got quite a boost as staff members had only good news to report from their facility.

"I was happy to be able to tell callers that everyone was alive," said Heather Kinkead, assistant public relations director. "And the morale in the whole hospital is up. Everyone knows that they made a difference."