All Children's unveils a $95 million research center. Next step: 'Cure some diseases.'

A baby simulator can be seen in the simulation center at the new Johns Hopkins All Children's Research and Education Building in downtown St. Petersburg. The $95 million facility opened Thursday. [SCOTT KEELER  |   Times]
A baby simulator can be seen in the simulation center at the new Johns Hopkins All Children's Research and Education Building in downtown St. Petersburg. The $95 million facility opened Thursday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Sept. 20, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — "Vicky Hopkins" is 37 weeks pregnant and splayed on a bed at Johns Hopkin's All Children's Hospital. Four obstetricians surround her as she groans.

"My back is killing me," she complains, but she keeps pushing.

Soon the round shape of a baby's head appears, crowned with blood. The rest of her body emerges with a grayish umbilical cord, eased out by one of the doctors in dark blue scrubs.

The baby isn't moving or making any sounds, so the obstetricians rush her to the other side of the room. One gently presses a stethoscope to her skin.

"Color is improving. Heart rate is improving. Let's see if she starts to cry," Dr. Jennifer Arnold says. On cue, the baby starts to wail.

Both mother and child are okay, except neither of them are actually breathing. They are medical mannequins in the pediatric simulation facility unveiled Thursday at the opening of the hospital's new research and education building.

The $95 million facility — which will hold 300 to 400 physicians, nurses, faculty and support staff — has been in the making since at least 2012. A site that once served as a parking lot now houses what the hospital says is Florida's biggest pediatric simulation center, with 40,000 square feet of research and lab space and a "biorepository" that can preserve up to 3 million biospecimen samples, such as blood, urine and tissue.

More than 400 people, including hospital board members, local officials and big donors, gathered Thursday morning in the shade of the seven-story building for tours and a ribbon-cutting.

"We think we're going to be able to start figuring out new ways to cure pediatric diseases by bringing scientists together with clinicians," said Dr. Jonathan Ellen, the hospital's CEO. "The clinicians will ask questions, the scientists may give them the answers, which will be brought back to the patients, and that cycle will continue until we cure some diseases."

With the new technology, health care professionals can rehearse for high-risk situations in a realistic environment, said Arnold, the simulation center's director. That includes risky situations like Vicky Hopkins' delivery, which was complicated by her gestational diabetes.

"(The mannequins) turn blue, they cry, they move, they can sneeze — they do a lot of the things that a real patient would do," Arnold said.

It's how people in other stressful industries such as aviation or nuclear power train, she said.

The inside of the building is shiny, light and airy, with conference rooms, other learning spaces and room for the program to grow, said Dr. Akshata Hopkins, head of the hospital's office of medical education.

The biorepository uses a robotic system to manage and store millions of biological samples that are critical to clinical studies, said Dr. Neil Goldenberg, director of research at the hospital. Researchers are able to use the samples to discover new blood markers and figure out how current treatments are affecting children differently.

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Beyond the medical facilities, the new building also is home to The Peabody Restaurant, inspired by a library at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The restaurant is run by the family behind the Oxford Exchange, a Tampa favorite.

The impact to the local community and the region is huge, bringing highly skilled jobs to the area, said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

"Obviously, the ability to attract the best talent to come here and train here and bring that brainpower into our community is a big deal," Kriseman said. "The doctors and the medical clinicians that are going to be trained means that the residents in our community are going to have the best care."

Alyssa Luciano and her 4-year-old daughter, Ava, who was treated at All Children's for leukemia, snipped the ribbon at the grand opening.

Luciano said there were bumps along the road in her daughter's treatment — particularly with getting the necessary drugs. Ava was allergic to some, and there were shortages of others.

The hospital's investment in the new facilities will help, Luciano said. "It's very special to us to see the advances being made right here in our backyard."