Closing Sacramento’s Sutter Memorial Hospital requires big relocation effort

The Old Tavern, which dates from the 19th century, and the Buhler Building, left, home to Sutter Cancer Center, frame the new Anderson Lucchetti Women’s and Children’s Center at Sutter Health’s campus in midtown Sacramento.
The Old Tavern, which dates from the 19th century, and the Buhler Building, left, home to Sutter Cancer Center, frame the new Anderson Lucchetti Women’s and Children’s Center at Sutter Health’s campus in midtown Sacramento. rpench@sacbee.com

Come early August, a fleet of ambulances will shuttle 180 patients from the venerable Sutter Memorial Hospital, built in the Great Depression and scheduled for demolition, to Sutter’s gleaming new hospital tower in midtown Sacramento.

All of the patients will be moved in one day, meaning an ambulance will leave the old hospital in East Sacramento with a patient and a team of caregivers about once every 8 minutes.

The trip to the new hospital is two miles. The move has taken years of preparation.

“Oh my goodness, we’ve been planning for a long time for this, and now it’s going to happen,” said Cindy Banta, a nurse in charge of readying the new hospital for patients and planning the move.

Banta started working on Sutter Health’s $750 million mission to expand and renovate its flagship midtown campus more than a decade ago and intends to retire once it’s done.

Between now and then there’s a hospital to move, including a lot of delicate, pricey equipment. A major focus is on the big move day – now set for Aug. 8 – when all of Sutter Memorial’s remaining patients will be taken across town to the new Anderson Lucchetti Women’s and Children’s Center.

Many will be new or expectant mothers and newborn babies. Sutter Memorial is known as Sacramento’s baby hospital. More than 300,000 babies have been born there since it opened in 1937 as Sutter Maternity Hospital. It also treats cardiovascular and transplant patients.

The hospital was once on the city’s periphery but now is surrounded by the leafy residential streets of East Sacramento. Sutter is closing the hospital because it’s outdated and doesn’t meet current earthquake safety standards. New homes and a park will take its place on the 20-acre site.

Sutter also wanted to consolidate its central Sacramento operations in one location. That location – a multibuilding campus bordered by K Street and Capitol Avenue along 28th and 29th streets – includes the new Women’s and Children’s Center, Sutter General, Sutter Cancer Center and the Old Tavern, a structure dating from the late 1800s that houses offices and Italian restaurant Biba.

Just across an alley from the Tudor-style Old Tavern, the ultramodern Women’s and Children’s Center has risen along the Capital City Freeway, clad in white metal with a curving design that evokes the region’s rivers and Sutter’s logo.

The 10-story, 242-bed building is essentially done and move-in ready, except for a few finishing touches.

“We have the keys,” Banta said. “It’s been turned over to us” by construction firm The Boldt Co.

The airy two-story lobby of the new tower will be the entryway to the entire campus, formally known as Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento. It has color-coded “portals” to help direct patients: orange for adults, green for women and blue for children. Enclosed bridges link the structures.

On the blue side, there’s an oval stage area where actors from B Street Theatre will perform. B Street plans to build a new children’s theater down Capitol Avenue on land donated by Sutter. A second-floor viewing area in the hospital will allow children in wheelchairs to watch the performances.

Curving hallways are lined with bright panels painted by local artist Jerald Silva. They feature scenes of Sacramento, as if seen through misted windows on which children have drawn in the mist.

A helicopter pad on top of the building allows emergency patients to arrive from far-flung areas of Northern California.

On an upper floor is Banta’s pride, a neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, with 60 spaces. Banta spent much of her career as a nurse in the NICU, where premature babies spend their days in clear plastic isolation units that control heat and sound.

Babies in the NICU will be among the most delicately handled patients to arrive on moving day.

Before that happens there will be multiple drills with volunteers as patients, said Virginia Schneider, a nurse and senior associate with architecture firm RTKL, based in Dallas. The firm helps hospitals plan major moves, including tracking patients through each step of transport.

One of the biggest concerns on moving day is food. The hospital’s food service has to feed patients, while caterers will set up a tent to provide fuel for the moving teams, she said.

Hospitals typically move patients in one day because both old and new hospitals have to be fully operational while even one patient is occupying a bed, she said. Staffing two hospitals over multiple days puts too much of a strain on staff.

“We want to make sure we have all hands on deck,” Schneider said. “If you try to spread out the patient move over several days, it becomes more difficult.”

That is why there will be a revolving parade of 20 ambulances transporting patients on moving day, she said.

When moving patients there’s little room for error, Schneider said. They require uninterrupted care.

The number of patients at Sutter Memorial will be pared down by eliminating elective surgeries and referring patients to sister hospitals, Banta said. But because Sutter Memorial is largely a maternity facility, staff members are not entirely in control.

When Sutter was moving its Mills-Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame four years ago, a couple drove up, the woman so far into labor that she delivered the baby in the car, she said.

As Banta gave a tour of the new Sacramento hospital last week, she noted its many family-friendly features.

Eighth-floor maternity rooms are spacious and private, with pullout beds for parents and wide windows overlooking the Capitol and downtown skyline.

In special suites, parents can sleep with their newborn babies to get used to caring for them, while staff members lend support. And there are a number of rooms where families can relax and where teens and children can spend some leisure time in the middle of stressful circumstances.

The hospital is designed to include families as part of patient care, a departure from traditional hospital design.

“We consider families a huge part of a child’s healing,” Banta said.

Call The Bee’s Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191.