2020: a space odyssey

Enloe Medical Center unveils Vision 2020, its plans to expand over the next two decades

READY TO RUMBLE Ed McLaughlin, a neighbor and long-time foe of Enloe Medical Center’s roof-based emergency helicopter service, says he is ready to resume his fight against the hospital now that it’s decided to stay in the neighborhood.

READY TO RUMBLE Ed McLaughlin, a neighbor and long-time foe of Enloe Medical Center’s roof-based emergency helicopter service, says he is ready to resume his fight against the hospital now that it’s decided to stay in the neighborhood.

photo by Tom Angel

Hundred-year history: The Enloe medical empire was launched around 1900, when Dr. Newton Thomas Enloe pawned his watch for $15 and began constructing his first hospital in the town of Stirling City.

Ever since the Enloe family sold it in 1965 and it became a private, nonprofit entity, Enloe Hospital has followed a nearly constant course of expansion, pushing its boundaries to dominate the neighborhood west of The Esplanade between Fourth and Seventh avenues.

A few years ago Enloe bought out its only competition in Chico, Community Hospital. Critics say Enloe now enjoys a monopoly on health care in Chico. Enloe defends the purchase of Community as a way of consolidating and streamlining health services to make them more efficient for the public.

Now the hospital is unveiling its plans to expand yet again, staying within its Esplanade neighborhood rather than exercising its earlier preference to move to property it owns on the east side of town, on Bruce Road near East 20th Street. If approved by the city, Vision 2020, as the ambitious plans are called, will lead to a new 200-space parking deck and vast alteration and enlargement of the main facility, whose new configuration will close part of Magnolia Avenue.

The facility’s total area will nearly double, going from 188,000 to 351,000 square-feet. The number of acute-care beds will increase from 204 to 276; six operating rooms will be added, bringing the number to 18; exam/treatment rooms will go from 25 to 33; and total parking spaces will increase by 100, from the current capacity of 672.

Because of new surgical techniques, recovery times tend to be shorter, meaning fewer overnight stays and the need for private, two-patient rooms. So the new plans add 24 observation rooms, within which nurses can monitor a number of patients recovering from surgery.

In all, the estimated cost for Enloe’s expansion is $92 million in current dollars. Funding for the multi-phased expansion will be generated through the hospital’s operating income and from charitable donations.

In addition, some 240 acres of property near Bruce Road and East 20th Street that is zoned for housing and held by the Enloe Health System could well be subdivided for home construction or sold outright by Enloe as developable land becomes more coveted in Chico.

At this point, the hospital’s board of trustees has approved the plans and, according to the four-color plan brochure, they have been “shared with Enloe employees, management and community members.”

The hospital will file its plans with the city Planning Department sometime early next year. That will be followed by a number of public hearings and, most likely, approval from the Planning Commission. History indicates that Enloe usually gets what Enloe wants.

Though the slick color brochure detailing the plan has been printed, not all of Enloe’s neighbors are aware of what may be coming. But because it’s now the only hospital in town, some of those neighbors—at least the ones we talked to—have had to rely on Enloe’s services and, perhaps sensing a debt of gratitude, aren’t about to complain about the hospital’s plans.

There is at least one neighbor, however, who plans to protest. Local bicycle enthusiast Ed McLaughlin has for years railed against what he sees as an abuse of the hospital’s helicopter emergency flight system, which is based on the roof of the main building. In 1987 he appeared on the cover of this paper, flyswatter in hand, looking skyward as if to take out the offending whirlybird.

Enloe COO Dan Neumeister, says the hospital will submit its $92 million expansion plan to the city early next year.

photo by Tom Angel

Recently McLaughlin had dropped his fight with the hospital’s helicopter because Enloe’s earlier plans called for moving its operations—LifeFlight and all—east to the Bruce Road property. But since those plans have changed to stay and expand current facilities, McLaughlin is ready to pick up his flyswatter and start swinging away again.

He says the helicopter responds to more than just life-and-death emergencies, and each time it flies from its perch on the roof and then returns for a landing, it negatively affects the neighborhood with noise, fumes and the risk of a crash.

“Frankly, how big an emergency the helicopter gets called out for has to be questioned,” he said. “Personally, I only know one person who’s used the service. She had a bicycle crash up on the old Centerville Bridge. She had two broken thumbs. This hardly requires a flight.”

McLaughlin acknowledges the timing of his battle against the hospital’s helicopter is a bit awkward in the wake of a fatal crash in September that took the life of a popular pilot and seriously injured a nurse.

Others have shown signs of discontent with the plans, as well. The Enloe administration is currently engaged in union contract talks with the California Nurses Association, and some nurses have criticized the administration’s timing in discussing its $92 million investment in its future while at the same time balking at nurses’ demands for a salary increase.

As chief operating officer, Dan Neumeister is second in command at Enloe. A few weeks ago he talked to the News & Review about the hospital’s plans for the future and how they will be unveiled.

“We were going to have a public hearing in November,” he said. “[But] we’ve just postponed that until January or February of next year. We’ve had too many things going on with the helicopter going down. So we’re saying, let’s just get through the holidays.”

He said the current plans are a culmination of a year and a half’s work to alter those that the hospital presented to the public in 1999—a renovation that the administration says will save money in the long run.

“That’s because of the way we were going to have to build it,” Neumeister said. “It would have been a case of several mini-towers on the front of the property without contiguous hallways and all the things you really need to be efficient.

“And so we said, ‘Let’s just stop and go get some of the best minds in America today for how best to design a hospital building and also look at the planning for the community’s needs and not just think that Enloe, meaning Dan or [Chief Executive Officer Phil] Wolfe or our physicians have all the answers. Let’s go out and get some input.’ “

The hospital administration interviewed a number of architectural firms and in the end hired Seattle-based NBBJ, the second-largest architectural company in the United States. Its projects have ranged from retail stores to high-rise towers, schools, sports complexes—NBBJ designed the football stadium that is home to the second coming of the Cleveland Browns, for example—and theaters.

The initial concept, which came from the hospital’s planning committee and a local architect, was based on the state’s seismic safety law, Neumeister said.

“Sometimes when you try to do something too quickly you realize that in the long term it may not be the right decision. So we said, ‘Let’s look at all the needs for the hospital and look to the year 2020 and do the planning the best we could.’ “

He said the new plans reflect the needs of an expected increase in area population, from 84,985 to 123,830 by 2020, and the changes in health care that affect the number of beds needed and an increase in square-footage for each room.

Medical procedures and technology are in constant change, and today certain surgeries are no longer as invasive and traumatic as they once were, which means overnight stays in the hospital are becoming shortened or being eliminated completely.

“In some cases surgery procedures have changed requirements for a patient’s stay from five days down to one day down to an outpatient surgery,” Neumeister said. “This shows that we don’t need as many beds.”

On the other hand, the new machines and health equipment take up more space in the recovery rooms, a squeezing effect you can’t help but notice when visiting a convalescing friend or relative at Enloe. This means recovery rooms must be built larger.

Chico Planning Director Kim Seidler said he has met with Neumeister two times, most recently about six months ago, to talk about tentative plans. He said the city expects a plan to be filed for the expansion sometime after the first of next year.

“Officially it’s hard for us to give a response until we’ve seen those plans,” Seidler said.

While Enloe owns most of the buildings and houses that are bordered by The Esplanade and Arcadian Avenue between Fourth and Seventh avenues, there are a few dozen private homes within those blocks.

E.P. Lutz has lived near the hospital on Sixth Avenue between Arcadia and Magnolia avenues for the past 24 years. On the day we talked with him, the former mail carrier told us he was still recovering from recent triple-bypass heart surgery.

“Well, I just had this surgery right over there,” he said, nodding toward the hospital that is a good stone’s throw from his front yard. “So I can’t hardly knock them.”

He’s resigned to the expansion, though he said he’s heard nothing from the hospital about its plans.

“I’ve worked on my place over the years, but if the expansion comes and they want to buy my house, I’ll move,” he said.

Over on Arcadian, between Fourth and Fifth avenues, Beverly Robertson said she had not been contacted either but quickly added that she had absolutely nothing negative to say about Enloe.

She and her husband, who she said is currently in the Enloe Hospice Program, moved to the tidy blue bungalow in 1994.

“I have no apprehensions," she said. "You just have to deal with what you need to deal with. And I might end up selling to the hospital one day."