Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital is prepping for a major reconstructive operation, one that will move the facility now located within MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital into a new standalone building operated exclusively for kids.

Jeff Poltawsky, president and market leader at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital & Health Network. Photo by Jeff Hobson.

It’s a $300 million project — heavy equipment will arrive on the scene by first quarter 2022 — expected to conclude by fall 2024 with a gleaming 300,000-square-foot children’s hospital with state-of-the-art design, systems, and facilities.

“I think we really are going to create one of the nation’s best and safest children’s hospitals here in Tacoma,” said Jeff Poltawsky, president and market leader at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital & Health Network.

Mary Bridge, part of Tacoma-based MultiCare Health System, chose architect ESa (Earl Swensson Associates), which has done health care projects across the country, to design the facility. The Nashville-based firm is teaming with TGB Architects of Edmonds. Design credits for ESa include being the architect of record for the new Arthur M. Blank Hospital for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, a project with a $1.5 billion budget that commenced construction in early 2020. Others on the project team include Layton Construction of Salt Lake City and Abbott Construction of Tacoma.

The Tacoma project will incorporate the “best of all worlds,” Poltawsky said of combining the latest thinking from facilities like that in Atlanta and planning sessions involving Mary Bridge doctors, staff, and administrators.

The acute-care pediatric hospital will offer the same services as today, but with modern enhancements relevant to evolving medical needs in an environment exclusively for children. For example, the facility’s hematology-oncology clinic will include a state-of-the-art pediatric cancer clinic and infusion center.

“A lot of the future cures of childhood diseases (are) going to be through infusions,” Poltawsky said. “There’s so much innovation in this space around immunotherapy and biologics treating all kinds of diseases. … This will really advance Mary Bridge in that area.”

Enhanced surgical services also are planned.

“Infants, children, young adults, (and) adolescents need a children’s hospital for surgery that’s in a dedicated place just for them,” Poltawsky said. “So this will be that regional center of excellence for surgery.”

Conceptual rendering of the new Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital. (May not be the final design)

The new hospital’s features will include 10 dedicated operating rooms for children; dedicated imaging, lab, and pharmacy services; and a hybrid interventional cardiac catheterization and interventional radiology suite.

Today, pediatric patients share spaces that include surgical and imaging rooms in Tacoma General. Separate and dedicated access to a pediatric emergency department will provide better pediatric experience and care delivery for families who need emergency care, according to hospital FAQs on the project.

“We can more effectively create a completely kid- and family-friendly environment when Mary Bridge Children’s isn’t tucked inside an adult-focused building,” the FAQs say.

Growing Patient Base

Dr. Nicholas Rajacich. Photo by Jeff Hobson.

Mary Bridge estimates there are about 500,000 children in its primary service area, which stretches roughly from South King County to east and west Pierce County, Thurston County, and Kitsap County. It expects that number to grow to about 525,000 by the time it opens, Poltawsky said.

Dr. Nicholas Rajacich, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Mary Bridge and chairman of the Mary Bridge Children’s Foundation board, said staff are thrilled.

“I can tell you, just from my conversations with my colleagues, the medical staff is over-the-moon excited about this,” Rajacich said. “The old hospital-within- a-hospital model worked for quite a while, but we’re sort of busting at the seams; we’ve outgrown that, and so the docs are pretty tickled that this is going to be happening.”

Mary Bridge has about 200 physicians and advanced practice providers, and 750 nonphysician staff in its network — which includes the inpatient acute-care hospital and more than 30 outpatient pediatric urgent, specialty, and primary care clinics in South Sound. Poltawsky anticipates increasing staff in future years to keep pace with the region’s growth.

Mary Bridge’s network has seen inpatient surgeries remain relatively stable over the last 10 years, hitting 1,193 in 2019. But outpatient surgeries rose 36.5 percent from 2009 to 6,088 last year, and ER visits rose 42 percent from 2009 to 47,288 in 2019, according to hospital figures.

About 61 percent of total care given by Mary Bridge is charity care, according to Poltawsky. Children’s hospitals tend to be the safety net for children in their community, he said, estimating the national average at around 50 to 60 percent.

Ability to pay is never an issue to doctors, Rajacich said. “We treat everybody the same, and we’re very family-centric, kid-centric, patient-centric here,” he said. “I would offer that the reason why a lot of specialists work for the hospital is because … we’re just free to do what we need to do to provide the best care we can.”

The care model includes the Child Life Services department, which Poltawsky said takes the fear and anxiety out of children’s visits.

“We have all these wraparound services for children that you can’t get reimbursed for; it’s just great care,” he said. “What we try to do is create all these wraparound services for families so that their child can have their best day ever, regardless of how they present or what’s going on with them from a health or mental health issue. We want them to have their best day possible — so that’s kind of what this is all about.”

Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital is seen in 1957, when only two floors were in use. The third floor would not be completed until 1964. Photo courtesy Tacoma Public Library. (Richards Studio, A108753-1-CLD-16)

Part of a Bigger Package

The new hospital is the bulk of a $414 million multiyear Tacoma General Hospital campus renovation that also includes new parking, renovation of the Tree House building for families of patients, and repurposing the existing 82-bed Mary Bridge space inside Tacoma General to adult use.

Tree House, next to Wright Park, has about 40 rooms to serve as housing for immediate family members of patients at a MultiCare hospital, with priority given to families with children at Mary Bridge or in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Tacoma General.

“Tree House is a large facility — it’s going to be really great to give it a new look,” Poltawsky said.

100-Year Legacy

By becoming a standalone facility, the new hospital is going full circle.

Mary Bridge opened as a standalone hospital in 1955. It was the longtime dream of the women of the Tacoma Orthopedic Association, now known as the Mary Bridge Brigade. But needing more space, the hospital moved in 1987 into a new wing in Tacoma General, and the former Mary Bridge hospital building became what is now the outpatient Mary Bridge Children’s Health Center, according to a hospital news release last July announcing the project.

“We’re actually going to return the hospital to its original footprint,” Poltawsky said. “So we’re moving the hospital across the street (Martin Luther King Jr. Way) again, and we’ll be a freestanding children’s hospital again on the land that was its original location.”

This year marks 100 years since the Tacoma Orthopedic Association formed to raise money for children’s medical care, a symbolic milestone of its own. The group of 15 women drove children with orthopedic needs, many of whom suffered effects of polio, to Seattle for care. For years, the women dreamed of building a freestanding children’s hospital here, raising money through penny drives and other initiatives before seeing their dream realized, Poltawsky said.

“I love that story just because it has such great local roots,” he said. “Grassroots made Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital happen in the fi rst place, and it’s happening again.”

Mary Bridge Brigade, which contributes annually to the hospital financially and through volunteerism, has about 800 volunteers.

The Mary Bridge Brigade and Mary Bridge Children’s Foundation, both nonprofits, are expected to launch fundraising campaigns for the hospital building in about a year or two, Rajacich said, adding that campaign targets were not yet available in early November, when he and Poltawsky were interviewed.

The project will be funded through operating reserves and some bonds, and the hospital is committed to moving ahead with design, development, and construction, Poltawsky said.

Philanthropy, though, will be essential to the new hospital, part of making it the best and safest it can be, he said.

Said Rajacich, “The more we are able to do philanthropically, the more we can do in the new hospital, so that’s the goal.”

Work for the hospital will begin with the demolition of Jackson Hall and the original hospital facility, Poltawsky said. Mary Bridge hopes to have Jackson Hall tenants relocated by October and move some care into regional outpatient specialty centers.