03/07/11 — Hospital on the rise

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Hospital on the rise

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 7, 2011 1:46 PM

Construction on the new state-of-the-art Cherry Hospital is ahead of schedule, as officials say they are, meanwhile, using the time to create a "new Cherry" internally.

Projected completion date for the psychiatric facility is late November 2012, with patients moved and the hospital fully operational by spring 2013, said Nate Carmichael, assistant hospital director and liaison between Cherry and the contractor.

The current campus, established in 1880 with multiple buildings and facilities -- the newest building is 50 years old, the oldest are upwards to 85 and 90 years old -- is spread out over extensive acreage.

By contrast, the new facility, located at 1401 W. Ash St., about a half-mile from the current site, next to the State Employees Credit Union, will be a single, three-story, 410,000-square-foot, 316-bed facility housing residential patient care units, therapy and medical facilities and administrative support offices.

Groundbreaking was held in October and time since has been spent on the "footprint of the building" -- parking lots, foundations and underground preparation efforts -- but in recent days, beams started going up, providing more visible evidence that the project is coming to fruition.

During a site visit last week, Philip Cook, director of Cherry, indicated it was his first opportunity to see progress firsthand.

Jeremy Scharpenberg, N.C. area manager for Archer Western Contractors, said workers are basically on schedule as the project moves forward.

"For the next several months, we will be doing the steel erection," Scharpenberg said.

"We're pleased with the progress and the job has progressed very well," added Carlos Torres, project manager, who said there are currently 135 workers on the site, but anticipates there will be closer to 600 by mid-summer.

Scharpenberg, whose company is based in Chicago but has an office in Charlotte, said Archer Western had previous experience building replacement hospitals, including Cook County Hospital in Chicago.

"We're very excited to get this job," he said. "This is another high profile project in North Carolina ... and our first job for the state construction office."

Once complete, the building is expected to look less institutional, more therapeutic, Cherry officials said.

"There'll be a lot less brick than you would see in a normal architectural setting," Carmichael said.

The premises will be cast in a different, brighter, light, he explained -- more glass and windows than dark and sterile.

One of the outgrowths will be a "complete overhaul" to the treatment mall concept at the hospital, where patients receive daily therapies.

"Moving toward a one-mall concept will fit perfectly in this building under one roof," Cook said.

Conscious effort was made toward that design, Carmichael added, not only in terms of appearance but for creating proximity between the patient residence unit and treatment area.

Over the course of the construction project, architectural changes are not the only ones being implemented, the hospital director said.

"In terms of preparing ourselves, we're really preparing the whole hospital -- the way we deliver care -- we're being mindful in two years we'll be in a different environment," Cook said.

The past year, 2010, has already been a "pivotal year," he said, with many ups and downs. Public perception and internal morale took some hits, he said, as incidents of staff and patient injuries climbed and reports surfaced about challenging working conditions at state mental hospitals.

The clientele served at a mental hospital, particularly those with violent or aggressive behaviors, makes it a unique working environment, Cook said. But that is subject to change, he said.

"I would say about last fall we really made a significant turn, no one could really be conscious of except us here," he said. "We as an executive team started reviewing all restriction interventions. What we have found is that our staff is responding in a very consistent manner."

Cook said his staff has been ardently working to address issues, with an eye toward building programs and services and attempting to create a more "natural fit" in line with having a new hospital.

"Cherry has been through and is going through a lot of change," he said. "The message we're working on is, if we have two years to work on (a new building), how do we come together and create the new Cherry?"

Some of the initial revamp was made possible by the downsizing revamp at Dix Hospital. Suddenly, Cook said, experienced leaders and front-line nurses and clinical managers were available for hire.

"These people have 20 to 25 years experience," he said. "As they're coming, their comments are how impressed they are with the nurses at Cherry and the health care techs at Cherry."

For more than a year now, he continued, there have been a number of changes within the ranks of the hospital, along with a downturn in some of the problem areas.

"Cherry itself has redirected over the last year, year and a half," he said. "Some of it will be training, some of it will be changing programming."

It all boils down to a culture change, Cook said.

"When you bring people together like we have in the last few months, our responsibility -- from top to bottom -- is to do it in a constructive way," he said. "We're blending many staff from Cherry and Dix to develop a new culture."

As a result, there has been a "significant decrease" in the number of patient and staff injuries, Cook pointed out.

"We turned the tide from the behaviors we see and how well our staff is performing in these very difficult areas," he said. "We're looking at it, we're grading it. We're seeing very good behavior. A couple years ago we didn't have any consistent behaviors."

Without placing blame, Cook chooses to focus on the need for a different approach.

"This is something we can measure collectively -- change in attitude, change in behavior," he said. "And it's going to get better. I think that's where having the experience and the history that we have, we're just going to get better and better at it."

Overall, he said, the success stories at the hospital far outweigh the failures.

"I think what's happening, we're working to embrace our mission to work with patients no one else works with. We can either look at it as a burden or a mission," he said. "I really do feel good about where we are and where we're going. ...

"We're not just going to be carrying some of the things that have plagued us for years. We'll have a new team, new approaches. Moving into a new facility just gives us that much more of an advantage to do that work."