SVMC President and CEO Thomas Dee says the construction is the first step in a strategic plan to modernize and update the facility.
BENNINGTON, Vt. — Health-care officials and supporters on Friday morning dipped gold-colored shovels into the ground to celebrate the start of construction for Southern Vermont Medical Center's $28 million emergency department project.
The Kendall Emergency Department will be the first phase of the $40 million Vision 2020 plan that will include the doubling in size of the cancer center on campus and the first steps in a strategic plan to modernize and update facilities throughout the campus.
"It certainly is a great, momentous occasion our history, this hospital since our beginning back in 1916, we've always been connected to our community," said SVMC President and CEO Thomas Dee. "The community really is a direct beneficiary of what we're trying to do here, and I can think of really no other more important service that a community hospital provides than emergency services."
SVMC's ER sees upwards of 25,000 patients a year but is also one of the oldest facilities in New England and the oldest physical plant in any hospital in Vermont.
"What a great job our team has done working in a substandard facility," Dee said to the crowd gathered under a tent outside the current ER entrance. "We never compromise in the care we provide, and the staff and the team have never complained. And it's all kind of the culture and how we just get things done."
The construction of the new emergency facility is not only an investment in care for the community, he said, but an economic driver and a critical kick off for the Vision 2020 plan.
"Over the next six or seven years, you're going to be seeing a series of projects taking place," Dee said. "The emergency room is really, really a key one to kick it off but the cancer center will be following up after that. And then we will start to do major facilities changes within the hospital itself."
Dr. Adam Cohen, chair of emergency medicine, said the facility will double in size and offer private rooms for patients, of which will be wired for telehealth and allow for negative pressure to prevent transmission of certain viruses.
"No more of these 1970s curtain dividers," he joked. "Everywhere is a private space to protect the patient's safety, privacy."
The ER will also have a separate entrance and waiting to segregate sick patients from others entering the hospital, and will now connect directly to the new Respiratory Evaluation Center and ExpressCare. These building are currently situated about 100 feet away from the entrance. The hospital was one of the first in the state to develop specialized treatment for mental health patients and the new construction will accommodate those treatment areas aas well.
"It's going to increase from three rooms to five rooms. Every room is going to have a window with access to outside light. And there is going to be a common space for recreation, to make sure that we can improve the comfort of our mental health patients while they're waiting for inpatient psychiatric care," Cohen said.
The doctor said plans for a new ER were being discussed when he first arrived in 2004, so it's been a long incubation process.
"Do you know what, it really worked out great because being able to design the project through the pandemic gave us the opportunity to learn from all the challenges," he said. "It has given us the opportunity to incorporate a lot of those learnings into the design of department."
He and others called out the staff for the remarkable work they had done over the past 18 months.
"I would like to just take a moment to recognize the courage and the professionalism of the entire team never questioned their duty to protect their health and their lives and families lives on the line to take care of patients in our community, healthy and safe through the pandemic," he said.
Dr. Joanne Conroy, president and CEO of Dartmouth Hitchcock Health in Lebanon, N.H., was on hand to congratulate its partner SVMC on its project.
The Dartmouth-Hitchcock intensive care unit is connected to SVMC through its telehealth program. She noted that SVMC has no traveling nurses and strong staffing, which speaks to the culture at the hospital and how it invests in and values its workers.
"If you haven't learned from the last 18 months of COVID, the emergency room is one of the front doors of the hospital," Conroy said. "[Patients] look to the emergency room staff and the hospital staff to actually educate them about things that they're concerned about in the community, and you have served that function for the community so well over the last 18 months. It really makes me proud to kind of watch the impact that you've had on the community."
State Rep. Mary Morissey brought congratulations from Gov. Phil Scott, and staff from both U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch's office spoke on their behalf.
Tommy Harmon, chairman of the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, made the introductions and thanked the many donors and supporters who were making the project come to fruition, including the Kendall family, owners of Mack Molding, for whom the new department will be named.
"We're just very excited and we're very appreciative of the support," said Dee. "We have a capital campaign of $25 million ... we're a shade under $21 million.
Dee said construction would actually begin in October after the demolition of the Lodge building, one of the original structures from the former Putnam Memorial Hospital. It's expected to take nearly three years to build and the old ER won't be closed until the new one is open.
"The ER stays open and that's why it's taking us 30 months," he said. "We have to be able to continue to keep it open and care for patients."
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