Brighter futures

A $28 million pediatric gift and other recent advancements in children's health mean big strides for the littlest among us.

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Any parent of a child with serious health conditions knows how important access to top-notch care that is close to home can be in keeping everyone in the family healthy and sane during times of tremendous stress. When your child has 30-plus appointments a month, small details can make a huge difference.

Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center has long been dedicated to making things better for such families, and this month things are looking up for the region’s children in more ways than one.

December played host to several special events, all marking major milestones in VCU Medical Center’s continued commitment to advancing children’s health in the region. An announcement of an unprecedented gift to establish a pediatric cardiac surgery program in Richmond, a “topping out” ceremony for a new children’s outpatient facility and a groundbreaking of a new and improved pediatric psychiatric facility – all this December – highlighted Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU’s continued growth and dedication to improving pediatric care for the region’s smallest patients.

“At VCU, we are most proud of our continuing investments in children’s health care,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health System. “This commitment to advance our programs and capabilities for the region’s children stems from our desire to be the best partner with the community we can be, as a research-focused, state-of-the-art academic medical center.”


The biggest gift for our smallest patients

John Duval, CEO, MCV Hospitals; Michael Rao, Ph.D., president, VCU and VCU Health System; Chris Broughton-Spruill, president, Children's Hospital Foundation; Sheldon Retchin, M.D., senior vice president for health sciences and CEO, VCU Health System; Leslie Wyatt, senior vice president for children’s services and executive director, CHoR; Eleanor Goode, chair, Children's Hospital Foundation.
John Duval, CEO, MCV Hospitals; Michael Rao, Ph.D., president, VCU and VCU Health System; Chris Broughton-Spruill, president, Children's Hospital Foundation; Sheldon Retchin, M.D., senior vice president for health sciences and CEO, VCU Health System; Leslie Wyatt, senior vice president for children’s services and executive director, CHoR; Eleanor Goode, chair, Children's Hospital Foundation.

CHoR announced today a gift of $28 million from Children’s Hospital Foundation that will be used to build a children’s cardiac surgery program. Such a program will allow families access to specialized heart services for children that have not been available in the region before now, and will prevent them from having to travel elsewhere for heart surgery.

The gift is the largest to children’s health in VCU’s history, and is the second largest publicly announced gift ever to VCU’s MCV Campus.

The gift is a major step in building the program, which began with the hiring of Thomas Yeh, M.D., Ph.D., director of the newly named Children’s Hospital Foundation Heart Center, and chief of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at CHoR. He and his colleagues will work to recruit additional care providers to the team, all with specialized training in the treatment of congenital and acquired heart disease in children.

With this gift, and Yeh’s recruitment, Richmond now has the capability of delivering comprehensive, 24/7 care for any cardiac service that children in the area may require. In addition, having this access nearby allows families to rely on their local support systems and eliminate disruptions at the most stressful time.

“There is no reason a city of Richmond’s size should not be able to offer its sickest children open heart surgery,” Yeh said. “Until today, that need was incompletely met, and many families had to leave the comfort of home to seek care.”

The move to Richmond was a sort of homecoming for Yeh, who trained at VCU Medical Center for his general surgery and cardiothoracic surgery residencies, and also obtained his Ph.D. in physiology here. After performing thousands of successful pediatric cardiac surgeries, with nearly 20 years of experience in the U.S. and Canada, Yeh returned to VCU this October to start the children’s heart surgery program.

“I am a product of VCU,” Yeh said. “The lessons I learned here inform my practice and my most fundamental views on what it means to be a physician. To graduate from VCU is to feel there is nothing you haven’t or can’t learn to take care of.”

This is his perfect job, he said. “I’m reminded of this every day when I look in the residents’ and students’ faces, and remember that was my face 28 years ago – here to learn the lessons of a career.”

In a press conference today about the Children’s Hospital Foundation gift, VCU Medical Center announced it would supplement the gift with $14 million to provide the technology and equipment needed to run a full cardiac thoracic surgery program. Yeh and the team will operate on children of all ages, from the youngest and sickest babies to older adolescents. Their services will range from chest wall defect operations and minimally invasive procedures, to transplants, valve replacements and device installations.

“The full circle of this moment has a surreal and spiritual quality for me,” Yeh said. “To provide this highly specialized care for Richmond’s children and to give back, I think, is probably my life’s greatest honor.”


New digs, same mindful care

Erik Christenson
Erik Christenson

For former patients like Erik Christenson and Amy Wirtala, the new Virginia Treatment Center for Children facility that VCU Health System is developing offers hope to other youth around the state battling mental illness.

“Life is still a struggle because of what I have and who I am, but because of the foundation that VTCC gave me, I’m pretty much able to cope with life,” said Christenson, now 26, who was both a resident and outpatient of VTCC after being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and bipolar disorder, among other things.

Christenson attempted suicide at only 13 years old. The eighth-grader and his family had recently relocated from overseas, where they lived on several diverse military bases. He didn’t make many friends after moving here, was bullied by his peers and had many teachers who didn’t really understand him.

Ending up at VTCC was a blessing in disguise for Christenson and his family.

“The people at VTCC are pretty much responsible for me being here today,” he said. “They were very kind and generally good people who had the best interest of the students and their patients in mind. It was a good environment.”

On Dec. 11, Erik and others spoke at a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of the future home of the new VTCC facility. The new space will offer state-of-the-art technology and design for inpatient and outpatient children with psychiatric needs.

It will house two 16-bed inpatient secure units with single bedrooms, private baths and accommodations for parents to stay with their children throughout their treatment. To help maintain privacy, a separate inpatient assessment and intake area with a secure sally port for emergency vehicles will be available at a side entrance.

The building will also have two extensive outpatient wings with specialized areas for play therapy, observation, medical exams and therapy. In addition, there will be a therapy mall for occupational, recreational, art, music and play therapy, along with telepsychiatry suites, a half-court gym, dining areas and outside recreational areas and gardens.

Amy Wirtala
Amy Wirtala

To the patients and their families, what’s even more important than any architectural elements or design features that a building can provide, though, is the level of quality care and life-changing connections made.

“To this day, Amy’s still connected,” said Kathy Wirtala, mother of now 21-year-old Amy. “There’s this very strong personal connection. It goes beyond clinical.

“We are definitely willing to make the 50-mile journey south to get this excellent care,” said the Fredericksburg, Virginia, native who traveled for years with her daughter as she was treated at VTCC. “I was so pleased with the care that Amy received from VTCC, and the holistic approach, including the parents as part of the team, to help Amy achieve success in her journey to wellness.”

The camaraderie with her VTCC peers, along with treatment for her coexisting disorders, including ADHD, Asperger’s, depression and anxiety, among others, has allowed Amy to reach that wellness and even thrive, so much that she just started her first job at the YMCA.

“I am so excited, and it’s been a long time coming,” Amy said of her first paid employment. “I love it already.”


Reaching new heights

Amanda Jones and her 5-year-old daughter Allie.
Amanda Jones and her 5-year-old daughter Allie.

“Little Blue,” the not-so-little blue crane hovering more than 170 feet in the air over downtown Richmond, lifted the highest steel beam of the new CHoR Pavilion into place Dec. 1. With the VCU Peppas serving up excitement with their music, a large crowd on 10th Street counted down the building’s topping out, a construction milestone for the 15-story facility.

While the magnitude of the 640,000-square-foot structural frame is impressive, the building’s full significance will be realized in 2016, once the doors are open and the doctors are in. Amanda Jones and her 5-year-old daughter, Allie, will be among the most excited to be seen in the region’s most advanced pediatric outpatient facility.

Allie has 36 appointments in any one month, currently in multiple locations around the city. The new building will facilitate multidisciplinary clinics and the opportunity for Allie to have multiple appointments in one day, in a single location, allowing her and her mom to get lots of precious time back.

“Having this one central location for all of the specialists and all of the care that she needs to survive, it’s going to give me back about 24 hours a month – an entire day – just in travel,” said Amanda. “But it’s going to give Allie back days – days that are not spent sitting in a waiting room or an exam room. It’s going to give her back her life.”

The new structure is being built adjacent to the existing Children’s Pavilion, across the street from VCU Medical Center. The pavilion will house 72 exam rooms; a surgical area with two operating rooms and two procedure rooms; areas for diagnostic testing, imaging and laboratory services; and family amenities, retail space and faculty offices. Construction also will include an attached parking garage with more than 600 spaces.

“In that building, there will be 170 or more pediatric specialists, researchers, specially trained nurses, technicians, ancillary medical staff and support staff, all just waiting to provide expert, compassionate and convenient care to children and their families,” said Leslie Wyatt, senior vice president for children’s services and executive director of CHoR.

It’s been a busy month for children’s health at VCU, and area children and their families can expect even more progress in 2015 – as CHoR continues to help its patients grow up happy and healthy, all the while growing itself.


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