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Children’s Hospital vision perseveres despite setbacks
Willett Children’s Hospital plans cloudy after Memorial Health/Novant partnership collapse
Artist's rendering of the proposed free-standing children's hospital. - photo by Image courtesy Memorial Health

AFTER Hurricane Matthew, the collapse of the Novant-Memorial partnership has to be one of Savannah’s biggest stories from 2016. Unnoticed by many, fully understood by no one (including me), it set our community back about $300 million in new health investments.

One – and just one – of the many components of this “Daimler-Crysler sized letdown” (see news of 2003), is how the deal-no-deal leaves us waiting for the arrival of a freestanding children’s hospital, something of a Holy Grail for Savannah pediatrics.

“For me personally, it was extremely disappointing,” says Bill Lee, Memorial Health’s Senior VP for the Willett Children’s Hospital of Savannah.

“For our team members who have for 25 years felt like we needed a standalone children’s hospital, it was very disappointing because we felt like it was a pathway to create that unique space.”

The children’s hospital just had broken ground – with shovels turning and photos of big wigs in hard hats – in April when talks between the Chatham County Hospital Authority, Memorial’s board of directors and North Carolina-based Novant Health broke off in May.

Angry editorials followed, leaving most of us scratching our heads.

“It’s not about finger-pointing,” Lee says, diplomatically. “It’s about bringing a community together. And I think, unfortunately, our Hospital Authority and our board were not aligned on the vision of what made sense for us from a growth perspective.”

The partnership would have infused the local children’s hospital with $15 million in capital, part of Novant’s $295 million overall proposed commitment to Memorial. So the children’s hospital immediately went from a spring 2017 grand opening to now, Lee says, a late 2018 opening.

“We are looking at other strategic partnerships,” he says. “We’ve not been able to secure the additional $15 million in funding. So, we’re approaching the children’s hospital in a phased approach.The first phase is a “total gut job” of the first floor of the former Rehabilitation Institute, the building closest to the Truman on Memorial’s campus. The old building’s first floor will house a general pediatric unit, a pediatric ER and a “child life theater.”

“We’ll begin with that because it’s the most work and hopefully have that phase completed and then we will move to the second phase which is the second floor and that’s the addition of our pediatric intensive care unit,” Lee says.

He describes a “child life theater” as an age-appropriate setting where staff and family can allay kids’ fears and provide coping and fun while the kids go through difficult times. The children’s hospital has gone from two to seven child life specialists in recent years.

- photo by Photo courtesy Memorial Health

They’ve also grown their sickle cell and injury prevention programs. They’ve recruited more pediatric specialists and added beds. And they’re planning to get a new ambulance just for kids and babies.

“Many people might not realize that last year alone, we delivered multiple sets of quadruplets here at Memorial,” Lee says. “And so often, we need ways to transport those. We will have an opportunity with a larger neonatal ambulance.”

In short, the children’s hospital is growing into its own and stands ready to stand alone, if only for that pesky $15 million that vanished this spring.

There’s been lots of local giving to support the effort, of course.  A five-year “Kids Only” campaign, involving several non-profits, so far has raised $18 million of a $20 million pre-collapse goal.

Obviously now, the goals have to be rethought. It’s not hard to think of Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football when something like this happens.

 I hope the Willett Children’s Hospital, a great vision for our community, lands standing upright very soon.