As a UNC Health Care medical helicopter buzzed overhead a ribbon was cut officially opening the new 40,000-square-foot addition to the Wayne UNC Health Care's surgical suite.

The Tuesday afternoon ribbon-cutting ceremony signaled the opening of the first phase of a $48 million expansion project to modernize the hospital's surgical unit.

"We will be adding the next three phases over the next 18 months," hospital President Janie Jaberg said. "We will actually physically start using this around May 21.

"We have the 10 operating rooms in here that we are going to start with. The next phase will actually be done in December/January. Phase three and phase four, we are still looking at time frames."

Jaberg said hospital officials are thrilled about the addition because of its 10 operating rooms and 52 space for pre- and post-op patients.

"It is very physician friendly," she said. "It is very staff friendly. The highest technology you can even image.

"It is built for access for our patients and for our staff so that they don't have to run around. It is all right there where they need it which is what you want for your patients.'

The second phase will be renovations of existing operating rooms and other areas of the surgical suite.

"As with any project of this magnitude, it is a journey," Jaberg said during the ceremony attended by hospital staff and local elected and community leaders. "We are pleased share with you the first phase of this journey that sits right behind me.

"The first phase includes over 40,000 square feet of new construction all designed with our patients and caregivers in mind."

"One of the most important things that we as a community can do is to make sure that we have great health care, great access to health care," said Wayne County Chamber of Commerce President Kate Daniels. "We are so proud of the team here at Wayne UNC Health Care and the great, great legacy that has been here and the momentum moving forward."

Dr. Greg Nichols, chairman of the hospital's surgery department, said he is excited to work in the health care field -- his lifetime dream.

But he said that he knows that coming to a hospital, especially an operating room, can be a scary, and at times an intimidating place for most people.

People may even feel helpless or vulnerable, he said.

But at some point in a person's life they are going to be a patient and may even need surgery, Nichols said.

"If that is the need when that happens to you, you want go a place where you feel you are getting the best care and treatment that you can get," he said. "Patients want to go to a facility they trust."

Trust is not something that just happens, it is gained by patients knowing their health care providers and experiences their friends and relatives have experienced, he said.

They want a positive experience, Nichols said.

"What I would say is that in my opinion, Wayne UNC Health Care, the surgery center that we have here, will meet or exceed our patients' expectations and justify that trust," he said.

Nichols said he has practiced obstetrics and gynecology at the hospital for the past 19 years.

"I have seen many changes in operating rooms and facilities during that timeframe," he said. "But after going through and touring today, they all seem pale in comparison.

"I think the new changes in this facility will herald an advancement in surgical care right here in Wayne County."

The design of the suites was engineered to maximize efficiency and will contribute to a comfortable patient experience, Nichols said.

The operating suites are larger and boast state-of-the-art equipment, he said.

That will allow physicians to treat more patients locally instead of having to send them outside the area for surgical care, Nichols said.

Nursing stations are centrally located allowing better communications with patients and assistance to their needs in a timely manner, he said.

Also, patients remain in the same room before and after surgery making for a more comfortable environment for family and friends to stay connected, Nichols said.

"As our mission statement states, 'patients first, quality health close to home,'" he said. "I think this facility will continue to allow us to pursue excellence in surgical care for the citizens of Wayne County and surrounding counties."

The project, originally budgeted for slightly more than $34 million, is now expected to cost just under $48 million.

The hospital's initial certificate of need allowed for it to spend 15 percent above the original projected cost.

Last month the state held a public hearing on the hospital's request for a certificate of need to allow for the extra expense.

Jaberg said she has not heard anything about the status of the certificate of need.

"We are not concerned. It will be fine," she said.