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Habersham hospital’s expansion complete

POSTED: November 5, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Brittany Perry, NT, demonstrates Habersham Medical Center's computerized medication dispensing unit. The refrigerated unit offers more secure medication storage and eliminates incorrect choices.

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Northeast Georgia Medical Center isn’t the only local hospital that’s undergoing major changes.

Habersham Medical Center in Demorest is putting the finishing touches on a $38.6 million expansion that includes a dramatic new entrance, a 17-room emergency department and a 24-bed outpatient surgery center.

To match its new image, the hospital has dropped the word "county" from its name.

"We felt the name was no longer reflective of who we were," said Habersham Medical Center president Dick Dwozan. "Most of our patients are from Habersham County, but we have a significant number from White and Banks counties, and also some from Stephens and Rabun."

The ER opened Sept. 9, and the surgery center debuted Oct. 19. Many visitors who haven’t been to the hospital in a while are stunned when they walk in the main entrance and see the 30-foot ceiling, wood laminate floors, walls made of Tennessee fieldstone and abundant natural lighting.

"We’ve had very positive feedback from the public," said Dwozan. "There’s a sense of tranquility that we didn’t have before."

There’s so much extra space that it’s almost like moving from a closet to a gymnasium. "We’ve tripled the size of outpatient surgery," Dwozan said. "We were really putting patients in cramped conditions before."

Previously, patients recovering from surgery were all crammed into one ward-like room with eight beds. Now, each patient is prepped in a private room and returns to the same room after surgery. Family members can stay there during the surgery instead of sitting in a waiting room, and they’re provided with a phone so they can speak to the surgeon.

Shirley Roberts, outpatient surgery director, said the hospital has three operating rooms now, but two more are being built in the former ER space. "Those should be ready by spring," she said.

The surgery center is part of the 40,000-square-foot "West Wing" addition, which cost about $11.8 million. Habersham Medical Center spokeswoman April Reed said the building, which currently has two stories, is designed so that more floors can be added later if needed.

While employees are excited about the surgery center, they’re positively ecstatic about the new ER. The old emergency department, built in 1991, was designed to treat about 12,000 patients a year and was stretched far beyond capacity.

"We treated 22,800 patients last year," said ER director Hope Adams, adding that the crowded conditions made it difficult for employees to do their jobs.

"The staff were just on top of each other," she said.

The new ER covers about 16,500 square feet and includes five large rooms that can handle critical events such as trauma and heart attacks. Each of those rooms has its own window and restroom.

There also are 12 smaller treatment rooms for patients with less serious conditions, and two psychiatric observation rooms, designed to be safe for patients who may be suicidal.

Especially valuable, said Adams, is a private consultation room. "We can use it when we have to tell families bad news, such as that their loved one has died."

Near the ambulance entrance, there’s an office for emergency medical services staff, and a decontamination room for patients who have been involved in chemical accidents.

"This is important because we have a lot of industrial plants in our area," said Adams.

On the roof of the ER is a new helicopter port, made possible by more than $300,000 in donations from the Habersham Medical Center Foundation.

Jack Moody, EMS director for the hospital, said the old helicopter pad was located across the street, and patients had to be transported by ground ambulance to and from the hospital. The new helipad can be accessed directly by elevator.

"That shaves 15 to 20 minutes off the time it takes to get patients into treatment," he said. "That’s critical when you’re having a heart attack or stroke."

Though Adams loves the convenience of the heliport, her favorite aspect of the new ER is something that may seem trivial — lots of storage space for medicines, equipment and supplies.

"Before, we just had all this stuff piled in hallways because there was nowhere to put it," she said.

Outside the hospital, there’s more room for parking. A 37-space parking garage is built under the ER, and workers are finishing construction on an above-ground ER parking lot. There also will be separate parking lots for the main entrance and the obstetrics department.

Now that the West Wing is completed, the hospital’s former entrance area is being converted into three labor-delivery-recovery rooms. This will give the obstetrics department a total of nine beds. Reed said the renovation should be finished in March.

Yet another advantage of Habersham Medical Center’s makeover is the acquisition of a 16-slice CT scanner and a 1.5-tesla MRI. The hospital previously was using a less-powerful MRI machine located in a trailer.

Dwozan said Habersham Medical Center also has purchased eight acres of adjacent land to accommodate any future expansion. "We’re holding some acreage for a possible medical office building," he said.

But for now, Dwozan is pleased with what they’ve been able to achieve.

"(This process) has taken us probably four years," he said. "We went through three designs before we settled on what we felt could best serve our community, and we’re really happy with the results."



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