TAMPA — The director of the James A. Haley VA Medical Center led the way through the spinal cord injury lobby and around a construction barricade.
"Let's go sneak in," said Kathleen Fogarty. "I have sneaking privileges."
Inside Haley's new polytrauma unit, a central promenade lined with palm trees leads to a rock-climbing wall. Windows in oversized patient rooms overlook a miniature golf course.
The goal is to feel unlike a hospital, she said.
The building, at the back of the Haley campus on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, is set to open in a few months and will serve the most severely injured patients. They have multiple wounds and other needs, such as coping with limb loss, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Tampa, the nation's busiest polytrauma unit, has treated more than 1,000 such veterans since the program started there in 2004.
Fogarty stopped outside a patient room on a wedge of flooring large enough to park a wheelchair, which she described as a front porch. On a green wall next to a solid wood door, a shadowbox waits for medals and flags and other personal items.
Some veterans will spend months here.
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In the past two years, the center has seen fewer serious injuries resulting from conflicts overseas, Fogarty said. But the center's current polytrauma unit was nearly full on a recent day. The smaller 55-bed ward sits within the original hospital, built in 1972. The space wasn't designed for these patients, who often need long-term care and more space for multiple procedures. They travel throughout the hospital for their treatments.
The new building will consolidate their care in one area, Fogarty said. And inside that area, there's space. The 56 patient rooms would fit 120 in a typical hospital design, she said.
The colors are a forest palette — solid wood doors, green walls and faux wood floors.
"It gives you that warmth, doesn't it?" said Fogarty, the first woman to head the Tampa center. With a background as a dietitian, she started out at another veterans hospital running a kitchen.
Now she makes time to hear ideas from staff for improvements and regularly goes on rounds to hear what patients think. The night before the tour, she said she talked to a patient who hadn't enjoyed his salisbury steak dinner, so she set up a visit with a new hire, a chef, to arrange something tastier, perhaps a panini, or a veggie burger.
Haley's new polytrauma unit is part of a nationwide expansion for veteran care.
The new building came with a parking garage already completed, part of a $231 million appropriation from Congress in 2009, Fogarty said. The project has come in under budget, using $108 million so far, she said. The hospital will return the surplus.
Across the bay in Pinellas County, the Bay Pines VA Medical Center is in the midst of a $253 million project, including a mental health center.
Fogarty expects Haley to see an increase in patient growth as major provisions of the Affordable Care Act go into effect, including a requirement that everyone have health insurance. The new provisions won't affect current patients, but some veterans aren't aware they are eligible, and Fogarty wants them to know the center provides quality care.
Polytrauma patient rooms will have televisions programmed with interactive software. Patients can access health information and watch movies, television or surf the Internet, all part of a move toward patient-centered care. Tracks are set into the ceilings that can lift and carry patients from their beds to an adjacent bathroom. Glass-walled community rooms overlook a basketball court and the putting green.
There's an area for medical staff to work on a computer and a private nook with a window and enough space for a pull-out couch for family members.
"We have moms who stay at bedside 24/7 for months," Fogarty said.
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Downstairs rehabilitation and occupational therapy rooms look like shops along a red, white and blue terrazzo main street. Six palm trees, Washingtonia replicas made from live trees, stretch two stories tall. And a line of 25-foot tall replica bamboos border a window overlooking a courtyard.
One end of the first floor has two swimming pools. The smaller one has a treadmill and the larger one is big enough to roll in wheelchairs and float kayaks, with a wall of windows that can collapse to the outdoors.
Other rooms are designated to treat blind patients, a common result of blast injuries.
Fogarty greeted workers and visitors as she walked through the center's halls and along sidewalks, where she pointed out a meditation garden with a koi pond, fountains and lush tropical plants. Her father was a drill sergeant in the Marines, and a picture of him sits on her desk. At a fork in her life, she was considering the military or working in Veterans Affairs when he told her, "You have never taken an order in your life," she said.
Now, she's in her 30th year with the administration.
Her plans are to continue to oversee Haley's expansion, which include becoming a magnet for more complex procedures, with a robotic cyber knife to treat cancer and an advanced neurosurgery department. A new six-story tower with 120 patient beds is also planned for the main campus.
Fogarty has overseen renovations and expansions, but new construction projects are rare, she said. She is hoping to get the keys in November and to move patients there in January or February. Construction managers had planned to be done in March, but they told her she would know they were nearly done when the tiles were placed in the pool.
Those blue tiles are in place now.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.