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Inside the new RMH: No stone left unturned in construction, layout of new hospital

Story by Chris Graham

It’s not even a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Dennis Coffman is getting to do something that only a relative few people have the chance to do in their lifetimes.

“What we’re doing here is setting the course for the delivering of medical services at RMH for the next 100 years,” said Coffman, the point man on the $300 million Rockingham Memorial Hospital project, which is on pace for a move of patients from the Downtown Harrisonburg location that has been the home to RMH since 1912 to the new site on Port Republic Road just outside the Harrisonburg city limits in June 2010.

Coffman, the director of facilities planning and development at RMH, is the kind of guy who as the cliche goes leaves no stone unturned. The overriding motivation for Coffman is to ensure as much as he can that the new hospital makes the best use of the new location that is possible.

“It’s not so much the amount of space that’s the issue,” said Coffman, a mechanical engineer by training, explaining that the new RMH will have 620,000 square feet of hospital space, about 15 percent more than the 540,000-square-foot hospital campus in Downtown Harrisonburg. “The existing hospital grew over the years in a way that wasn’t as well thought out because you had to build based upon what you had to build next to. Here we’re able to plan the usage of space not based on space that’s available, but based on what makes the most sense,” Coffman said.

Everything is being done with the goal of logic and the elimination of redundancies in mind, from the orientation of patient rooms to the outside of the building to allow for natural light to aid in the recovery process to the location of the emergency room and surgery and ICU rooms to allow for the colocation of medical resources that can be most efficiently used in common.

“In health care, you need to have that kind of a thought process to make sure that the hospital is run as efficiently as possible,” said Coffman, who has worked with Rockingham County on a deal to use landfill-produced methane gas to provide energy to the new hospital that will end up saving RMH millions of dollars over the lifetime of the new facility.

“That’s important because we are big consumers of energy, and a lot of our equipment is extremely expensive, and is prone to electrical fluctuations and is temperature-sensitive,” Coffman said. “We’re open 24-7, and you can’t really, so to speak, turn off the lights, because patients are there all the time, and you can never know when there’s going to be an emergency, and things need to be able to run at full capacity at a moment’s notice. The operating rooms, for example, are typically 68 degrees inside in order for the surgeons to work in the heavy garb that they have to wear, and in the tense situations they have to work in. I can’t let the temperature go up to 78 degrees at night when no one’s there because they may need it in less than five minutes notice, and we can’t get it from 78 degrees to the 68 degrees that they need it to be so they can do what they need to do.

“It’s not wasteful, but yet it’s not efficient,” Coffman said.

There are still some growing pains that will be evident even when the move of patients to the new site is done next summer, most significantly involving the road network connecting the Harrisonburg-Rockingham area to the new RMH site. Work will be ongoing on projects to improve Port Republic Road and Stone Springs Road for the next two to three years.

“We knew that Port Republic Road was going to be an issue. We as a community have felt that the road network in the area needed to be improved. It’s nice to think that maybe we were the catalyst to seeing that come to fruition. Our whole community will benefit from seeing the roads in the area improved, not just the hospital,” Coffman said.

As for the next 100 years at RMH, Coffman said attention is being paid to the future of health care in Harrisonburg-Rockingham. He noted that the footprint of the new hospital only takes up about a quarter of the available acreage on-site, allowing for additions to the campus in the future based on need.

“It’s impossible for us to know exactly what health care will look like in 50 years, but we’re trying to plan accordingly,” Coffman said.

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