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WATCH NOW: Construction on Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU reaches turning point as final beam is set
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WATCH NOW: Construction on Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU reaches turning point as final beam is set

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The VCU Children's Hospital of Richmond is under construction along East Marshall Street Tuesday, May 18, 2021. City Hall is on right.

When it’s finished, the new downtown building for Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University will rise 260 feet in the city’s sky, or as tall as a stack of 13 giraffes.

The hospital markets itself with such factoids to underscore the facility’s mission: Everything is done with kids in mind.

Children come to the hospital with different ailments. They need different approaches to treatment and different medicine, said Dr. Matt Schefft, a Children’s Hospital hospitalist who has contributed to the building’s design.

The VCU Children's Hospital of Richmond building is under construction in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Video by Alexa Welch Edlund/Times-Dispatch

For the first time, all of VCU Health’s pediatric services will exist in one building, nicknamed the Wonder Tower. Construction crews laid the final beam last month, and the hospital will celebrate with a virtual event Wednesday in which Mayor Levar Stoney is scheduled to speak. There’s still drywall to place and medical equipment to deliver before it opens in early 2023.

The walls will be adorned with bright colors, and the top floors of the 16-story structure will have dedicated playrooms and performance spaces. Most 16-story buildings aren’t as tall as the Wonder Tower, which needs more space from floor to ceiling because of the equipment that will eventually occupy the building. While City Hall one block over has 19 stories, it’s about the same height.

The way Children’s Hospital sees it, the patient is more than just the child being treated. It’s the whole family, which is why the hospital will have private showers and dedicated family space.

The floors are rubberized to make them softer, and in the epilepsy unit, where kids are more apt to fall, they’re extra soft.

Once it opens, the Wonder Tower will connect to the outpatient pavilion built in 2016 on the Broad Street side of the block between North 10th and 11th streets, essentially creating one building. A bridge system will connect to the Gateway Building to the northeast.

The way the patient flow exists now, a young patient may have to visit three buildings for checking in, completing lab work, and admittance to the hospital. If there’s an emergency, the patient might require an ambulance for a two-block trip. Parents are likely to move their car from one deck to another along the way.

With the new building, patients will be able to visit the emergency room on the third floor, undergo surgery on the second and be admitted all in the same 16-story building.

“It cuts out so many steps,” said Tracy Lowerre, a VCU nurse who consults on the building’s design. Health care workers and patients advised Children’s Hospital on what the new building should look like, suggesting moving the bathrooms to the back of the rooms so that doctors and nurses can more easily see if they’re occupied and computer stations built on adjustable desks, so the provider can sit or stand. More than 500 staffers will work there once it’s complete.

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Tracy Lowerre, nurse liaison, and Zach Isbell, JLL project manager, talk about the VCU Children's Hospital of Richmond building that is under construction Tuesday, May 18, 2021. They are standing on the third floor where the pediatric emergency dept. will be located. City Hall is at right and the new General Assembly Building is being constructed behind them.

Construction crews broke ground for the Wonder Tower in June 2019. The pandemic pushed back its completion date from late 2022 to early 2023. The tower’s $100 million fundraising goal is halfway to being met.

The emergency department will extend 5,000 square feet, the width of a city block and double the size of VCU’s current pediatric emergency room. The Wonder Tower is actually slightly larger than a city block, because the upper floors extend 7 to 12 feet over the sidewalks.

Children’s Hospital celebrates its 101st anniversary this year, after opening in 1920 as the Crippled Children’s Hospital in response to the polio epidemic. In 2010, it merged with VCU Children’s Medical Center. Its location on Brook Road in the city’s North Side will continue to operate, treating children who have long-term needs.

The Wonder Tower will open with 72 private rooms, but it will have shell space to add another 48 rooms should the demand arise. The new hospital can grow into what it needs to be down the road, said Zach Isbell, the project manager and an employee of JLL Project Management.

“The building was not designed just for today,” Isbell said. “But for five, 10, 20 years into the future.”

Near the bottom of the building, the outside walls are painted in muted orange, yellow and red colors, somewhat matching the historic buildings across the street. A block away is The Valentine museum, a frequent wedding destination. When weddings occurred, a Valentine employee would call the hospital to let the construction crew know the bride was ready to walk down the aisle. Then work would halt for several minutes, pausing the construction’s clamor.

“We recognize we have to be part of the neighborhood,” Isbell said.

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Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, sports, coronavirus and protests for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 after graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in English. (804) 649-6109

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