by Pia K. Hansen

Walking down the hallways of the third and fourth floor of Sacred Heart's east tower on a sunny Monday morning, it's hard to tell if the brightly colored walls, painted footprints on the floor, balloon animals and round windows are the setting of a daycare center or a hospital.

"We tried really hard to get rid of the hospital feel," says Joseph J. Gilene, CEO and executive director of Sacred Heart Children's Hospital. "Hospital stuff is scary to children. With the bright colors and the design of the furniture and the space, we tried to get more of a family feel, something along the lines of what children would like their bedrooms to look like."

This Sunday at noon, Bishop William Skylstad will bless the new hospital, and after that the doors are thrown open to the entire community until 5 pm. At the open house, visitors can also tour the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile, visit with pet therapy dogs and get entered into the kids' ID program, run by the COPS stations.

But the main feature, of course, is the new hospital, which is like no other hospital in this area.

"The difference between a 'regular' hospital and a children's hospital is that we focus only on children," says Gilene. "When you provide better care, focused on children, you get a better reaction."

But don't be fooled by the happy ladybug or the smiling fish on the wall -- this place is also a top-notch medical facility.

When the expansion is completed in 2004, Sacred Heart Children's Hospital will house 154 hospital beds on a total of 161,749 square feet, 70,000 of which are part of this new expansion of the hospital's east tower.

Specialists in cardiology, neurology, pulmonary diseases, pediatric oncology and many other medical fields will all be accessible through the Children's Hospital's outpatient care center.

"The same people will be staffing the outpatient care center," says Gilene. "We hear that a lot, from parents, that they don't want to deal with new people and new staff all the time. That won't happen here."

The design of the new expansion doesn't just focus on the child patient's well-being, but also on the family's.

"Children bring their families with them -- siblings, parents, sometimes uncles and aunts," says Gilene. "The [private] rooms are bigger, there is a real bed, not a cot, for parents spending the night, and there's just more space." The rooms also feature a fridge for the family's own food, a child-size desk and eventually perhaps, a desktop computer. Procedure rooms are kept closed off, away from the hospital rooms.

"That way the hospital room becomes a safe room for the child, where none of what may hurt or be frightening takes place," says Gilene.

The Ronald McDonald House charity organization has donated two family rooms, complete with fireplaces, fish tanks, regular sitting-room furnishings and a kitchen.

"Parents told us how important it is for them to have a place like this, which looks more like a living room than a hospital," says Gilene. "There's even a laundry room, so they can wash that favorite blankie or some of their own clothes. We're trying really hard to make it look like home." In connection with one family room, there are also four sleeping rooms where exhausted family members can get some rest.

The Children's Miracle Network has donated a teen room, furnished with games, an entertainment center and comfy black leather couches.

"Teens are sometimes forgotten in these projects. They are too old to play with the toys, so we felt we wanted to give them their own room, that caters to their style and needs," says Gilene.

The Children's Hospital is expected to draw patients from Eastern Washington, northern Oregon, North Idaho and western Montana.

"There are about 400,000 children in this area," says A. Chris Olson, MD, MHPA and medical director of the hospital. "We have many examples of patients who flew right over us, to Seattle, because they couldn't come here. And we have many patients from the local area who have had to travel far out of town to reach the specialists and clinics they need."

The centralization of equipment and specialists in connection with the existing hospital makes economic sense.

"People often ask why we didn't build a new separate hospital in a completely different area of town," says Olson, standing on the skywalk to Sacred Heart's main tower. "This solution just makes more sense. It's more cost-effective."

It also allows regular hospital staff to branch out and specialize in children's care more easily.

"For instance, if you are very good at drawing blood from children, then you want to focus on that here," says Olson. "Even in the hospital pharmacy, we have people who specialize in medication for children."

Only phase one of the Children's Hospital project is ready now. Phase two will be located in the west tower, in connection with the women's health center and the neonatal intensive care unit; it should be ready about a year from now. Olson, himself a father of eight, says the entire project has been driven by physicians and families in town.

"This is not a case of the hospital coming to us, saying, 'Here's what we want to do,'" he explains. "I know I have a lot of patients I can send to see specialists here, and they can get that family-centered care that they really need. I know I have the doctors here to help them." n

The community open house, which has a beach party theme, takes place on Sunday, Aug. 24, from 1-5 pm. Enter at Seventh Avenue and Division, where there's free parking. Visit or call: 474-4841.

Publication date: 08/21/03

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