Hospital’s opening is calm on the outside, but buzzing behind the scenes in ‘command center’
Friday, October 18th, 2013
Issue 42, Volume 17.
The lobby was quiet, as traffic was light and most of the visitor seats were empty. Four ambulances stood ready outside the emergency room. A sparse stream of visitors flowed in and out of the building, most of them wearing badges that identified them as vendors, consultants or staff.
But tucked away on the second floor of the building, a buzzing "command center" was connected by computers and cell phones to all facets of the operation. Racks of snacks, stacks of sodas and containers of coffee were available to the 80-member crew that had arrived from all corners of the country for a 7 a.m. check in.
The command center will remain operational for two weeks as the 140-bed hospital, the city’s first, begins to function as part of the fast-growing community.
"It’s been wonderful – really, really smooth," Darlene Wetton, chief executive officer, said as she summed up the first day of operations. Few technical bugs had surfaced and the telephone switchboard was quiet, she said.
She attributed much of the hospital’s relaxed tone to the troubleshooting and problem-solving skills of the command center staff. She said the influx of workers, which will augment the hospital’s regular staff, has swelled the occupancy rates of several Temecula hotels and motels.
"It’s really impressive," Wetton said as she scanned the room filled with newly arrived computer technicians, doctors, care specialists, supervisors and other operations experts. "Until you see (the command center), you can’t appreciate it. We’re ready for anything that may happen."
By 3 p.m. Monday, about 10 people had sought help at the emergency room for various injuries and ailments. At least two of those arrivals were admitted to upstairs acute care rooms and others were being evaluated.
Sections of the intensive care unit and acute care rooms located on the third floor were staffed and ready for service. No surgeries had been scheduled for the first day of the hospital’s operations.
"We want to ramp up a little slowly," said Marcia Jackson, the hospital’s director of strategy and business development. Jackson and several other employees have been involved in hospital openings in Murrieta, Escondido and other locations.
The hospital’s tranquil first day was in sharp contrast to a nine-hour open house that attracted about 7,000 visitors in August. That celebration, which gave the public its first glimpse inside Temecula’s newest landmark, marked a key milestone in a decades-long push to plan, build and open the $150 million facility.
The open house followed a July 31 ribbon cutting that attracted nearly 500 city, county and state officials along with hospital staff and business and community leaders.
The hospital plan – which publicly surfaced in early 2004 – experienced more twists and turns than almost any other development proposal in the city.
Several years of planning followed by considerable neighborhood opposition ended in January 2006, which was when the Temecula City Council approved a proposal by Southwest Healthcare System to develop a 35-acre site in Temecula’s southeast corner.
At that time, the development plan called for a 320-bed hospital that would include a pair of medical towers at Temecula Parkway and Country Glen Way.
But a subsequent court challenge filed by residents and a nurses’ union was successful. The litigation delayed, but did not derail, the project. After further review, the council approved new environmental documents and granted new approvals in January2008.
But construction did not begin anytime soon, and expansion difficulties at Southwest’s other hospitals in Murrieta and Wildomar diverted the company’s focus away from its Temecula project.
Delays breaking ground in Temecula and extensive state licensing scrutiny of the company’s other projects prompted city officials, business leaders and state lawmakers to periodically grill Southwest officials over the lack of progress.
A growing frustration among Temecula council members was eased when Southwest spent $8 million over a 10-month period to seek new permit approvals and take other steps aimed at jump-starting the stalled project.
A third development plan submitted by Southwest was approved by the Temecula council in February 2011. That plan called for the 320-bed medical complex to be built in stages. Future plans call for the facility to include medical offices and cancer and fitness centers.
Council members approved the project after receiving assurances that work will begin on the second segment, which would include the remaining 180 beds, by 2019. If all proceeds as planned, that section would open about 2022, city officials said at the time of the final review.
The demand for hospital beds and other medical services will likely dictate the pace of the construction process, officials said. Many of the future decisions centering on hospital services and patient safety will likely come before a local governing board.
"The board members have a very important role in the hospital," Wetton said. "They are the ones who are out there listening to the community’s needs."
The demand for hospital services increased exponentially on Tuesday, Jackson said. As of early Wednesday, Oct. 14, the hospital had logged about 75 emergency room visits. Eight patients had been admitted to acute care rooms since the hospital opened. Seven others were held for extended periods of treatment and observation.
The surgical services wing performed colon and heart procedures on a pair of patients.
"It’s going well," Jackson said in a Wednesday morning interview. She said the need for services has met the expectations of hospital officials. But the severity of some of the illnesses suffered by incoming patients was not anticipated, she said.
"We’ve had some very sick patients," she said.
Efforts to ensure a smooth opening are under way as the hospital takes steps to wrap up a loose end in the planning process. Hospital officials are seeking to win approval to identify the location of a landing zone that will be eventually used by emergency services helicopters.
A heliport location was identified in the approved development plans, but noise and safety concerns were repeatedly raised by nearby homeowners. The construction of nearby apartments has created a need to relocate the helipad to another location, according to city documents.
On Oct. 8, the council approved the hiring of a consulting firm that will be paid $99,460 by Southwest to study the potential impacts of temporarily moving the helipad into a parking lot west of the hospital building. The helipad would remain there until the second hospital tower is constructed. At that time, the helipad would be moved atop the second tower.
The study, which is expected to take about four months to complete, will examine safety, noise, lighting and other aesthetic issues.
With the hospital opening and plans for a heliport moving forward, Wetton said she sometimes marvels at the steady progress that has been made to reach this pivotal point.
"In September of last year, I was in a little trailer on the site here tromping around in the mud," she recalled.
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