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A New Start

Author: Elaine B. Holtz
May, 2015 Issue

“People need to think of the new facility as both a hospital and a community resource.” —Merry Edwards

Out of dedication, passion, hard work and a community coming together saying “Open Our Hospital,” a new standard of excellence in medical care and services has been born in Sebastopol. On March 9, 2015, a packed room stood, applauding, as they heard the 4-0 vote at the Palm Drive Health Care District meeting. The vote meant that Sonoma West Medical Center (SWMC) would take responsibility for reopening the facility formerly known as Palm Drive Hospital in April. The Sonoma West Medical Foundation had led the drive to reopen the Sebastopol hospital as SWMC, which will now be responsible for its daily operations, including hiring staff and contracting with physicians and vendors.
The reopened hospital will serve both the West County community and the Highway 101 corridor with a comprehensive medical care model. Along with offering emergency and acute care, it will also include specialty institutes that will address diabetes, arthritis, headaches, memory loss, stroke, incontinence, joint replacement and aging. With more than 100 employees, SWMC will be a major employer in the area and serve approximately local 60,000 residents. It also will be accountable to an oversight committee composed of five district board members, five members nominated by the SWMC Board of Directors, two medical staff and one community member.

A bit of history

Founded in 1941, Palm Drive Hospital closed in April 2014 due to ongoing financial issues. Of particular concern to the community was the closure of the hospital’s emergency room, which, as the only ER west of the 101 corridor, saw approximately 7,000 patients annually. Studies have shown that, when an emergency department (ED) closes, mortality rates at neighboring EDs increase due to the increase in volume, which stretches capacity, and the greater distance patients have to travel for care.
In June 2014, a small group of concerned community members mobilized to reopen Palm Drive Hospital, led by Dan Smith, a local philanthropist, Dr. James Gude and Gail Thomas, president of the Palm Drive Health Care Foundation, a philanthropic organization whose mission was to support Palm Drive Hospital. “I wanted a hospital, and the community wanted a hospital. So we began to work out a plan,” says Thomas.
Although the challenges were immense, Thomas says every time people saw an ambulance heading down Highway 12 to Santa Rosa with someone from the Sebastopol community in need of life-saving care, it reinforced their resolve to keep moving the process forward. She says that, within weeks, red and white “Open Our Hospital” signs began popping up in front of homes and business throughout the area. Along with that effort, the group developed an exciting plan to reopen the facility and began presenting its plan and seeking community involvement with a series of town hall meetings across the West county area, including Sebastopol, Occidental, Bodega Bay, Guerneville and Graton. Over several months, the plan was refined and discussed with a subcommittee of the Palm Drive Health Care District Board.
SWMC was formed with a 12-member board, and additional board members are currently being sought. Its mission is to save lives, comfort the hurting, heal the sick and educate all with skill and compassion. The SWMC plan includes alliances with local, independent physicians, regional health care providers, local health clinics, Redwood MedNet (health information exchange provider) Offsite Care (a telemedicine provider) and EHRI Inc. (an electronic health record provider).

The right leaders

Dan Smith, chairman of the SWMC board, is inspired by the people who’ve come forward to help reopen hospital. According to Smith, the facility will be emphasize physician leadership (with physicians in charge of every department) with the motto being: “Doctors lead—we follow.” It’s this attitude that’s attracted top physicians and community members to come forward and help make it happen. Of primary importance to Smith is that people understand there isn’t competition between hospitals. One SWMC goal is to collaborate with other area hospitals so they’re all working together. Along with all the infrastructure upgrades, Smith is excited about hiring a good chef who will use the area’s organic farms so the hospital can provide patients with high-quality food. “This will help their overall well being and healing,” he says.
“Physicians can focus on being physicians,” says Smith, explaining that the new business model will provide a menu of business support to medical providers—including marketing, administration, billing and collection—which will let physicians focus on patient care.
In January 2014, Raymond T. Hino, MPA, FACHE, an experienced small hospital CEO, was rated by Becker’s Hospital Review as a top 50 rural hospital CEO. Hino began work at Palm Drive Health Care Foundation in November that year, and is SWMC board president and CEO. He has an extensive background working with hospitals of all sizes—particularly district hospitals—and first became familiar with Palm Drive Hospital while working as CEO for the Mendocino Coast District Hospital from 2006 to 2012. Because of his knowledge about the hospital, the West Sonoma County area and his love for small hospitals—even though he was working at a hospital in Southern California at the time—when asked to consider coming back to Northern California, he accepted.
“We’re so excited to offer a hospital for the 21st century, one that’s taking advantage of the latest technology in the areas of surgery, medicine, emergency rooms, telemedicine and electronic record keeping systems and that’s working together with doctors, patients and the community,” says Hino. Reopening a hospital is like starting from scratch, he says: “I knew there were many challenges ahead, but in my 35 years in the health care industry, I’ve never seen such a powerful surge of community support for a facility to open. I knew it would happen and wanted to be a part of it.”

Community cares

Merry Edwards, CEO of Merry Edwards Winery, lived in Forestville for 23 years before moving to Sebastopol in 2012. Since relocating to the area, Palm Drive Hospital has been her hospital of choice. In 2011, her husband, Ken Coopersmith, suffered a heart attack and almost lost his life. Edwards had always valued the local hospital and decided it was important (along with being a donor) to serve on the SWMC board. “I’m a business owner and part of this community. I felt a deep responsibility to be involved,” she says. She went on to express her fear that, had the hospital been closed when her husband had his heart attack, the time lost having to transport him to Santa Rosa could have cost him the ability to recover.
For Edwards, having a local hospital saves lives. “Just think if you have a serious accident in Sebastopol: You won’t have to go to Santa Rosa or Petaluma to get to an emergency room. Those saved miles might save your life,” she says. “People need to think of the new facility as both a hospital and a community resource.” Edwards is proud of the new facility and all it will offer residents, and she encourages people to become donors and take a tour to become familiar with all that’s available.
“And if you have a problem that requires a specialist, the new facility will have the capacity to have live TV interaction with a specialist from anywhere in the world,” Edwards explains with great excitement. She adds that the hospital is one of only two in Sonoma County that meet the high standards required for accreditation as a primary stroke center.

No Wait ER

Edwards is particularly excited about the “No Wait ER” created and supervised by Harvard-trained physician and Sebastopol resident, Dr. Rodney Look, M.D., a pioneer in the concept. The average wait in California EDs is four hours. But with a No Wait ER, a patient will see a doctor within 15 minutes of arrival, on average. Many wait as little as four to five minutes with this type of setup. Once evaluated, a patient moves through the emergency room process quickly and efficiently, receiving the highest standard of care and medical expertise. Look believes this approach will not only increase efficiency but will also attract people from the surrounding communities. “I believe patient needs are the first priority.”
“When a stroke strikes, minutes matter,” explains Dr. Allan Bernstein, a neurologist who was instrumental in developing the SWMC stroke center. He’s enthusiastic about the new hospital and medical center. Of primary importance to him was to have a headache program at the hospital, made possible due to the renovation of the ER, which will now have a special section dedicated to patients who suffer from severe headaches. The plan is to collaborate with other doctors in the area, so if an emergency arises with one of their patients who suffer from headaches, they’ll know treatment at SWMC is available. According to Bernstein, when people need treatment for severe headaches, the protocol used will be in conjunction with the neurology department making the diagnosis and treatment plan.

The specialty institutes

At the heart of SWMC are the Specialty Institutes. Each medical specialty, led by a physician team, will encompass clinical care, education and research. For example, the North Bay Neuroscience Institute, led by Bernstein, will offer many services not available elsewhere in the area, including care addressing memory disorders, headache and migraine, neuropathy, movement disorders, epilepsy and stroke. Other institutes will include Bollinger Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute, Pereira Brain and Spine Institute, Bretan Urology Institute, North Bay Endocrinology Institute, North Bay Rheumatology Institute and the Institute for Integrated Medicine. Also being offered are community education and research, including drug trials and clinical research. The goal is to both serve the local community and also draw patients from surrounding counties where these services aren’t offered.
To let physicians focus on patient care, part of the SWMC model is to provide business support to the medical providers at these institutes, including marketing, administration, billing and collections. These institutes will also provide revenue streams to the medical center.

Something wonderful

With dedicated volunteers on board, the center began offering tours of the newly refurbished and renovated hospital beginning in March, letting the public visit patient rooms and areas normally off limits. Upgrades include correcting non-structural earthquake work, which was badly needed. Each inpatient room will have a single bed, allowing ample room for visiting family members. Patients will be able to select food from a menu and, when possible, it will be made from organic, local ingredients. Each patient room will be equipped as a telemedicine portal, so patients and physicians can conference with off-site physicians and specialists when needed. Twelve-inch iPads are in each room, so patients can communicate with their medical team or family members.
Along with inpatient services, SWMC will have robust outpatient services concentrating on support for specialty surgery including neurosurgery, orthopedics, urology and general surgery. Additional services include a laboratory, medical imaging, surgery, infusion center, lifestyle and longevity programs, nutritional healing and exercise, behavioral health, women’s health and physical therapy programs. Integrative options such as acupuncture, massage and behavioral health will be available by patient request and with physician approval.
There’s a new motto in town: “Something Wonderful Is Happening.” With the opening of SWMC, it definitely is. Thomas believes, with the new strategy for growth, costs will be kept to industry standards and ongoing operational revenues. “Although costs are always a challenge,” she says, the new center will serve the community as it was meant to be served.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” the famous saying by anthropologist Margaret Mead, has come to light in Sebastopol.

Faithful Volunteers

The Sonoma West Medical Foundation Auxiliary, formerly The Palm Drive Auxiliary, is a volunteer organization dedicated to the health of the hospital and its patients. Auxiliary volunteers fill many needs at the hospital, including giving paid staff more time for direct patient care. They’re most often seen visiting with and serving meals to patients and greeting visitors at the door.
“We were all shocked when we heard the hospital was closing,” says 37-year volunteer Leona Spadoni. “With the leadership in place, I feel the Sonoma West Medical Center will be a great success. I’m happy to be volunteering,” she adds.
Karen Miller has been a volunteer for more than 13 years, four of those as auxiliary president. “Members of the auxiliary have remained positive through this transition and have continued with their efforts raising funds for scholarships, meeting regularly and patiently waiting to get back to work.” According to Miller, there are currently 19 members of the auxiliary and they’re considered “the heart of the hospital.”


1941: Martha Helwig, a local nurse, persuaded her husband, Al, to develop a hospital. They picked a site atop a palm-lined drive overlooking the Laguna de Santa Rosa (north of the present site).
1969: Palm Drive Hospital goes public with new holding company Ross Medical Corporation.
1970: Purchased by Hospital Corporation of America (HCA).
1980: HCA creates a new corporation health trust for less profitable hospitals.
1990: Columbia Health Care partnered with HCA.
1999-2000: Palm Drive Health Care District is formed when community members purchase the hospital from Columbia. Palm Drive Health Care Foundation is created as a 501c3 to manage the hospital.
2000: Sebastopol residents approve a tax to provide an emergency room, acute care hospital and medical services at Palm Drive Hospital.
2000: West County residents vote to form The Palm Drive Hospital District.
2003: The West County Health Care Foundation changes its name to the Palm Drive Health Care Foundation.
2007: Palm Drive runs into financial difficulty and applies for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
2010: Hospital shows its first profit since 2003.
2012: Small losses continue.
2013: Things start to decline with a $1.5 million loss.
2014: The hospital files for its second Chapter 9 bankruptcy and closes. The community comes together and begins process to reopen it.
February 2015: Final plan is presented, in which the hospital name is changed to Sonoma West Medical Center (SWMC).
March 2015: The Palm Drive Hospital District votes 4-0 to reopen as SWMC.
April 2015: SWMC opens.



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