BALTIMORE -- When 4-year-old Kimberly Gorode came down with a common virus recently, her parents faced two challenges. First, the suburban Baltimore couple had to help her get well, and then they had to tackle the more difficult issue of where to keep her while she recuperated.

Since most day care providers and schools ask parents to keep sick children at home, Kimberly's parents feared they might have to miss work to care for her. Instead, they found a day care center for sick children at the South Baltimore General Hospital, off I-95 near downtown Baltimore.

"We have no family in the Baltimore area, and the program is a godsend," said Joanne W. Gorode, who works in optical sales. "In the past, my husband and I have had to alternate taking time off from work. His employers have never been too happy about it, and I work on 100 percent commission, so it has been very costly."

The hospital center opened in April, the first of its kind in the state. Ida Williams, a state Department of Health nurse consultant for day care programs, said a group of residents that has studied day care needs in the state is preparing a recommendation for more such centers. That report will be reviewed by state officials, she said.

Jackie Clark, president of American Referral Network Inc., which monitors day care services in Baltimore and Howard and Montgomery counties, said, "The program is an asset . . . and it is definitely needed."

Beth Goodwin, who lives in the Howard County community of Glenwood, agreed. "We are both working parents, and it is often impossible to find any kind of day care or baby sitter for a mildly ill child on a short notice," she said recently, after leaving her 15-month-old son, Mark, who had an eye infection, at the hospital.

David Marlowe, marketing director for the hospital, said the center was an outgrowth of requests for services from hospital employes. "The program was started after extensive research was done by talking with employes at the hospital, calling a number of day care centers, elementary schools and the {hospital} human resource director to see what alternatives parents and employes had when they have a sick child," Marlowe said.

The center, which is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., accepts up to 12 children, infants through adolescents, although it has not yet been full.

A registered nurse is assigned to the program to screen calls each morning to determine from the symptoms whether a child's illness is contagious or too severe to permit admission.

"Children with childhood or contagious diseases, such as chicken pox, measles, mumps, lice, scabies or hepatitis, herpes or undiagnosed oral lesions, will be accepted only if there is adequate isolation available for that day," explained Dr. Shahid Aziz, director of the hospital's pediatrics department.

"The program is primarily designed for the child who is mildly ill, recovering from surgery or one of the childhood illnesses, or who has a stomach virus." A child with a contagious disease will be kept in an isolated room and one of the staff members will spend the entire day with him or her, allowing the child to play games, watch television or read.

To participate in the program, parents must give a brief medical history and record of immunization. A parent must notify the center one to two hours before the service is needed or may schedule ahead, as in the case of a young patient recovering from surgery.

The center has five rooms next to the pediatrics department, and is staffed regularly by one nurses' aide who is experienced in caring for sick children of all ages and by Linda Bender, a counselor who specializes in care for hospitalized children. Other nurses' aides are used when needed.

A registered nurse from the pediatrics department also supervises the care of the children, and administers all prescription drugs provided by the parents.

There is a playroom equipped with a color television, a box filled with toys, rocking horses and a diminutive table with chairs, which was donated by hospital staff.

Bender tries to minimize any fears the child may have of the hospital, such as anxiety over separation from his family, abandonment, or pain from procedures.

Bender tailors activities to a child's age and sickness. She separates them by age groups because"some of the 7-year-olds don't really like playing with 2-year-olds."

The cost of the day care program is $3 per hour. Meals, snacks and beverages are provided to each child for a fee according to the parents' instructions and the nurses' judgment. Some parents also bring their child's food.

During the day, parents may visit or call to learn about the child's condition. Changes in condition, however, will be immediately reported to the parent. In an emergency, physicians from the hospital's pediatric department are consulted.