SPRING HILL — A few months ago, Crystal Culbertson, Oak Hill Hospital's director of surgical services, helped stick colorful tape to a slab behind the hospital.
The tape, in various colors, served as a guide for where computers and other cutting-edge equipment would be placed in six new surgical suites. Doctors, nurses and surgical technicians all had input in the design.
On Monday, Culbertson stood in one of the completed suites and beamed. An anesthesia machine stood ready, next to the operating table. Two flat-screen monitors hung from the ceiling. A black, 55-inch monitor gleamed on the wall.
Patients will soon make the scene complete.
"It's very rewarding," Culbertson said, then nodded to some of the nurses and surgical technicians in the room. "I'm very excited for these guys."
The suites, along with 18 recovery bays, are housed on the first floor of a two-story, 70,000-square-foot addition expected to open next month at Oak Hill. The building on the north side of the hospital also features a new family lounge for surgery patients and 36 private intensive-care rooms on the second floor.
Next month, renovations will begin to about 30,000 existing square feet of space that includes the endoscopy and bronchoscopy suites. Crews will break through walls in three places to join the two spaces.
"The very invasive, challenging part is still to come," said Oak Hill chief executive officer Mickey Smith.
That work will be complete by the fall. For now, Smith, staffers and Tennessee-based parent company HCA are celebrating the first phase of the $50 million project, which marks the biggest expansion at Oak Hill since it opened in 1984 as the first hospital on the west side of Hernando County.
Designed by architect Gould Turner Group Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., the project also represents the largest capital investment for a Hernando County hospital since Health Management Associates spent $53 million for the new 183,000-square-foot Brooksville Regional Hospital that opened in 2005.
Once complete, Oak Hill will have a total of 262 acute-care beds, the most of any medical facility in Hernando or Citrus county. The number of operating suites will increase from eight to 12; two existing ones will be eliminated.
The need for the space is pressing, Smith said. For the last couple of years, the hospital has been running beyond capacity. The volume has required an evening shift for surgeries, a practice expected to end when the addition opens.
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During a tour with Times journalists this week, Smith pointed out features large and small.
He started in the sprawling family lounge, with its arched ceiling, reclining chairs, kitchenette and adjacent private registration rooms. The earthy green-and-brown color scheme and granite countertops continue throughout the building.
Smith led the tour past the fully-equipped patient recovery bays and into the surgical suites.
Each oversized space features the large screens to display vital signs, X-rays and endoscopic images. There are workstations for both the surgeon and the nurses.
Patients won't notice that kind of feature, but it means a lot to staffers accustomed to the existing cramped operating rooms, said Culbertson, who is also a registered nurse.
"It really is night-and-day difference," she said.
Smith guided the tour onto a giant elevator capable of holding 8,000 pounds. The doors opened to a long hallway lined by wide doors to private rooms.
One of the major benefits of the expansion is the consolidation of the hospital's four intensive-care units — medical, surgical, cardiac and open heart — onto this one floor.
"It allows us to put all of our resources in one place," Smith said. "It's a dramatic increase in efficiency."
"I'm going to love it," said Robert Linares, a registered nurse and supervisor who floats among the intensive-care units. "I spend most of time running between floors."
Oak Hill has always allowed 24-hour visitation for loved ones of intensive-care patients who requested it, but the new space will allow the hospital to advertise that service.
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The first phase is finishing on schedule and on budget, despite Mother Nature's soggy hand.
Nashville-based general contractor Brasfield & Gorrie and the firm's subcontractors lost three weeks to rain days, said project manager Brig Eastman. Crews were about to finish the last concrete slab when Tropical Storm Debby slogged through the area in late June. The storm prompted round-the-clock pumping to pull water away from the site.
The rains were a temporary headache compared to the ongoing challenge of coordinating a major construction project at an operating hospital. One of the first steps — moving utilities — was also one of the toughest.
"We ripped out the heart of this hospital while it was still beating," Eastman said.
Some patients grumbled when the power had to be cut and the temperature dipped or rose, but for the most part the work went smoothly, Smith said.
More than 700 workers contributed, and about 75 percent of the labor is going to companies within a two-hour drive of the hospital, Eastman said. There are several Hernando County companies working on the project, and the ballpark dollar figure for materials and labor from Hernando County is $6 million.
The hospital does not expect to add new jobs in the immediate future because existing staffers will move to the new space. Over time, however, as patient volumes increase, up to 71 new positions are expected.
The addition was built with an eye toward the future. Though just two stories, it's called the North Tower because the building will eventually rise four more stories.
"If the patients choose to come to Oak Hill," Smith said, "we're going to provide the services."
"It's one of the most beautiful wards I've ever seen," said Dr. Mallik Piduru, a general surgeon and a former chief of staff who still advises hospital administrators. "As our volume grows, this is going to be one of the premier hospitals in the area. I feel it."
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes.