As the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918 swept through Alabama's Tri-Cities, young Eliza Coffee was one of the many who were lost. The area's hospital was named in her memory. It served generations of residents over the next century, but after so many years and three decades since the last update, it was time for a facility that could bring 21st century healthcare to the area.
"We promised the people of the Tri-Cities a new hospital. Getting approval on the certificate of need took a while, but that gave us time to focus on planning, which helped us build a better hospital," Chief Operating Officer Michael Howard said. "We had conversations with our staff in every department. We asked people what would make their job easier. And we wanted to know what we could do to improve patient care. From physicians and nurses, pharmacy, dietary, housekeeping, and staff throughout the hospital, our frontline caregivers gave us some wonderful ideas that we took to our architect, Gould Turner Group, and our builder, Layton Construction."
From groundbreaking to completion, construction of the state-of-the-art facility took two years. As it progressed, the hospital staff spent long hours planning the logistics for moving patients in a convoy of ambulances from Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital and making sure everything was in place at the new medical center to welcome them.
The big day came in December. The new North Alabama Medical Center opened its doors to begin serving patients from Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and border communities in Tennessee and Mississippi.
"We had reserved 20 ambulances from Alabama and Mississippi for the whole day if needed, but everything went so smoothly that by 1:00 p.m. we were getting the last of 135 patients comfortably settled in their new rooms," Howard said.
"The response from patients has been wonderful. They talk about how much larger and more comfortable the rooms are and how easy the hospital is to navigate. They are also happy about the technical advances and new capabilities that allow them to receive a broader range of care without having to travel far from home."
For the comfort of patients and their families, rooms are decorated with a feel that is more like a hotel than a hospital. In addition to a bedside recliner in every room, there is also a sleeper sofa so family members who stay with patients can get a better night's rest.
"Our doctors are happy because their patients are happy," Howard said. "They also like the layout and easy navigation that allows them to move quickly to where they need to be. And we are getting great reviews on the technology upgrades that allow our surgeons to do a wider range of more advanced procedures so they can do more to help their patients close to home."
The center has increased ER rooms from 21 to 36, and operating rooms from 10 to 15.
"One of those rooms is a rare hybrid that includes imaging to assist in cath lab and other vascular procedures," Howard said. "We have excellent radiology and imaging technologies overall, including two CT scanners and two MRIs. A new O-arm is being put to good use assisting in brain and spinal procedures. As you might imagine, these advances in our capacities are helping us attract new physicians, nurses and patients. We're seeing increases in transfers coming to us from small outlying hospitals."
Location is another plus for the new medical center.
"We are in Florence by the river, up on a hill where we are easy to find. Being near the crossing of two major traffic arteries makes it easier to get here in an emergency."
The medical center participates in training for medical students and is working toward setting up a residency program. Its new facilities also offer space for continuing education for staff as well as health education for the community.
"With the new conference facilities and auditoriums, we've been able to do several seminars for our physicians and staff and wellness seminars on topics such as diabetes education for the community. We have childbirth and new baby classes, and more planned," Howard said. "There is so much potential here and built-in room to grow."