07/17/11 — Last girder laid for Cherry project

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Last girder laid for Cherry project

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 17, 2011 12:14 AM

Phase One of the construction of the new Cherry Hospital site was marked Thursday with a "topping out" ceremony at the site on Ash Street Extension.

The last steel girder was set in place while more than 100 construction workers as well as hospital and state officials looked on.

"This is sort of the bones of the new hospital," said Nate Carmichael, assistant hospital director and liaison between Cherry and the contractor.

"It's kind of a key milepost in the development of the hospital," said Philip Cook, hospital director.

Construction on the new campus began in October and is projected to be completed by late 2012.

It will replace the current psychiatric facility, which was established in 1880 with multiple buildings spread out over several acres.

The new facility, located next to the State Employees Credit Union, will feature a single, three-story, 410,000-square-foot, 316-bed faciity housing residential patient care units, therapy and medical facilities and administrative offices.

To mark the occasion, staff members were allowed to sign their names or write a note on the steel beam representing the completion of Phase One.

"It's a way for everybody to sign in on the last beam being installed," Cook said. "We have reached a very significant stage of the hospital being complete."

Progress appears to be on track.

Cook said the timing is especially good, as once the exterior segment is done, it allows interior construction to continue during the winter months -- wiring and plumbing, as well as sheetrock.

Luckey Welsh, division director of state-operated health-care facilties, praised the General Assembly for its leadership and commitment to psychiatric care in North Carolina. He said it is time to update the state's older facilities and was pleased that is being done, so that mental illness can be treated "in the setting that's most appropriate."

"This is designed to support the way treatment is provided today as opposed to the way treatment was provided in the 1800s," said Laura White, team leader for the state's psychiatric hospitals. "Just the layout increases the safety because of the visibility."

Welsh estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 employees in the state's hospitals are hired to care for the 1,000 mental patients who require "special care."

"With that comes challenges when you have patients that are that ill," he said. "Then you have behaviors that are very difficult. I would say to you we put a lot of extra time and training into our employees."

Cherry Hospital staff has received ongoing training and education, Ms. White said, especially over the past couple of years, not only to benefit patients but to protect the workers.

"We're always concerned about our employee safety," Welsh said. "That means when they come to work at a state psychiatric hospital, it's more susceptible to have an incident.

"We continually work on employee safety. That's a big focus of ours."

It has admittedly been a challenge, Welsh said. There will always be unanticipated behaviors to deal with from the population served, sometimes violent ones, making it all the more essential to be prepared.

"If you have 1,000 patients, that means every day, 365 days a year, (it's like) 36,000 patients a year," he said. "Think about how many encounters you have with a person every day. And we do it well and our people are incredibly professional.

"They do a wonderful job. I promise you, sometimes we do fail. We recognize that. That's why we continually train."

At the same time, he said, for many who have served in the profession for years and years, they consider it "privilege" to do the job they do.

So it's essential to make sure they have all the resources necessary to do the job well.

And he said the potential is there to accomplish that.

Not that a brand-new building like the one Cherry envisions in 18 months is the only answer. But Welsh says if funding is earmarked properly and employees are given all the tools to do the best job possible, improvements will come.

"We think that better days are ahead for our hospitals," he said. "This is a pivotal point for us and we think we're going in the right direction."