Children's Hospital's $300M Expansion and Renovation Nears Completion
When the grand opening is held in November, the result of over four years of construction will be a gleaming, ultra-modern facility mixed with historic buildings on a live oak-dotted campus that aims to take children's health care into the next decade, modeling its approach after other top-rated facilities such as Texas Children's Hospital , where CEO and President John R. Nickens spent 25 years of his career before landing in New Orleans in 2017.
While the 229-bed facility has not added more inpatient beds, it has added a 28-room cardiac intensive care unit, 12 operating rooms, 45 emergency rooms, 24 rooms in the new cancer center and a slew of updated equipment for MRIs, CT scans and infusions.
"If you look at pediatric health care from the early '90s, people have done just this," said Nickens. "We're probably a little behind, but now we're catching up. And I think we're going to drive the national dialogue."
Around 235,000 square feet have been added, the equivalent of nearly five football fields, and another 100,000 square feet were renovated, including nine historic buildings primarily left over from the property's days as a U.S. Marine Hospital dating to the 1930s.
One structure, a Creole cottage built in the 1830s, is Uptown's oldest residential building, according to Nickens, and will serve as a coffee shop. Other historic buildings will serve as physicians' offices and the Ronald McDonald House , which houses the families of children receiving care.
The hospital has poured millions into the renovation of the historic structures -- $6 million going to the Ronald McDonald House alone -- but they see the preservation as a nod to New Orleans' history and a refreshing change of pace from most hospital structures' sterile design.
"It's a tribute to Uptown," said Nickens. "It's really fun to walk around the campus and see those -- it almost feels like you're on a college campus."
On Monday, construction workers wedged concrete pavers into a pathway outside the steel and glass two-story entryway that will also serve as the new emergency department drop-off. The long glass structure is meant to make the hospital feel less maze-like.
"It feels a little bit like an airport concourse," said Ben Whitworth , the vice president of hospital operations. "It's just one public concourse the entire way -- it's not a left-turn, right-turn hallway. It's light-filled the entire way, just one path."
The new emergency department is sectioned into three pods: one for behavioral health, where patients will be evaluated before admission into the hospital's new 51-bed facility; one for patients needing overnight care; and a third for fast-track patients -- those who don't require complex care, like a child who swallowed pennies, offered Whitworth.
In the waiting room, children can step on gel-filled, color-changing pods or slip into circular nooks carved into the wall.
The $300 million expansion hasn't been without hiccups. There was the pandemic, which, besides creating anxiety and uncertainty throughout the health care industry, redistributed staff and caused the number of patients to fluctuate and behavioral health visits to skyrocket.
Record rainfall this year and high water on the Mississippi River , which runs alongside the campus, has also contributed to construction delays.
And there have been spats with neighbors over the location of a new helicopter pad, which has resulted in a class action lawsuit. Nickens said the hospital cannot comment on that, due to ongoing litigation, but the helipad remains in the much-disputed spot.
"We're committed to doing the right thing for kids, and in this situation, the fastest, safest place for that helicopter is where it is," said Nickens.
Completing the construction while keeping the hospital going has felt like a game of Tetris, said Whitworth.
But overall, the original target opening date was only delayed about seven months.
About $40 million of the $300 million expansion came from donations. The hospital, which is part of LCMC Health's six-hospital system, borrowed another $100 million .
And there is reason to believe that children's health care will be busier than ever in New Orleans , said Dr. Mark Kline , an infectious disease specialist and physician-in-chief, who joined the staff from Texas Children's Hospital .
The hospital has seen a huge uptick in respiratory viruses after children started interacting more in recent months. Kline expects flu season might be especially rough this year. Changing weather patterns may contribute to more cases of mosquito-borne disease in the coming year.
"With climate change, we're susceptible to a lot of conditions we previously thought of as being infectious diseases of the tropics," said Kline. "The years ahead are going to be very interesting for places like New Orleans ."