Two years ago, when MultiCare began its multimillion-dollar expansion of Tacoma General Hospital, planners knew that, sooner or later, the day would come when the hospital's most vulnerable patients -- the fragile preemies and critically ill newborns in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit -- would have to be packed up and moved to new quarters.
The distance isn't far -- up one floor on an elevator and a lateral distance of less than 50 yards -- but the babies' precarious health made the complexities enormous.
Hospital planners and staff members at the unit met daily for more than 18 months, planning the logistics of the move. Nurses were briefed and rebriefed. Staff members did practice runs with empty bassinets.
The big moving day was Tuesday.
Over four hours, a parade of 22 tiny babies in glass-walled incubators rolled into the hospital's new Rainier Pavilion, each accompanied by nurses, equipment technicians and specialists monitoring ventilators and IV fluids. After the move, all the infants were settled in their new rooms and "doing great," MultiCare spokesman Cole Cosgrove said.
Fifty staff members helped with the move, plus volunteers.
"You have to be prepared," said Lisa Strom, Tacoma General's chief operating officer. "Anything could happen. They could need an intervention somewhere in the hallway."
"We've moved NICU patients before, obviously," Strom said. "But we've never done them en masse."
Each of the tiny patients was moved into a private room, a big change from the open bays where their incubators were packed just a few feet apart, lights were always on, and monitor alarms sounded almost constantly.
"Think about a hostel compared to being in your own private hotel room," Cosgrove said. "The NICU hadn't been updated since the 1970s, so the space was definitely not ideal."
In the old unit, parents had to drag in chairs from the hallway to have a place to sit down. The 30 new rooms are spacious and come equipped with chairs and sleeper sofas so parents can spend the night if they want. There's a refrigerator and warmer for breast milk, a television set and floor-to-ceiling windows.
"The big difference is there's more space and family can visit more often," said Alyssa May Jacobson, whose son Maverick was among the first new tenants. "In the other place, the limit was three visitors at a time. Now we can have more people come to see him."
Maverick weighed 2 pounds, 13 ounces when born Feb. 8 -- more than two months premature.
"I ruptured while I was at school," Jacobson said.
Down the hall, Lochlan Thompson, who weighed just 1 pound, 10 ounces when he was born Dec. 23, settled into his new private room under the watchful eyes of his dad, Tyler Thompson.
"This is awesome compared to where we were," Thompson said. "We were in a space maybe two times this size with six babies. You didn't have any privacy. Now we can spend the night when we want. There's even showers parents can use."
In all, expansion of the Rainier Pavilion at Tacoma General adds 115,929 square feet and 100 private rooms. In addition to the new NICU, the pavilion houses the labor and delivery unit, the "mother and baby" unit and two adult inpatient rooms.
The changes are part of the second phase of MultiCare's $119 million expansion of Tacoma General and the adjacent Mary Bridge Children's Hospital and Health Center. Changes at Mary Bridge were completed in May and included 48 new private rooms for young patients and a pediatric intensive care unit.
Once the NICU move is complete, Cosgrove said, the labor and delivery unit will move into the new building -- most likely by the end of this month.
Phase III of the project will wrap up with a refresh and remodel of the vacated spaces, to be completed by the end of 2015. When that phase of the project is complete, Tacoma General will have 40 NICU beds and 30 lower-level intensive care nursery beds.
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693