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April 2007
Total Synchronicity
By Susanne Deitzel

     “From day one, everything and everyone involved in making Levine Children’s Hospital a reality has seemed to fall perfectly into place.”

     This is what the hospital’s new administrator, Martha Whitecotton, has to say about her experience with the design and operation of what will soon become Charlotte’s first full children’s hospital. From fundraising, to community support, to staffing, to its on-time and on-budget construction, Whitecotton could not be more enthused with the way the plan for the $85 million Levine Children’s Hospital has come together.

     What becomes immediately obvious in speaking with Whitecotton is that this synchronicity is due in no small part to her involvement with the project from day one. While Whitecotton is the first to attribute Levine’s success to the impact of teammates and community involvement, it is clear that if there were a recipe for a children’s hospital administrator, Whitecotton would be a hands-down, blue ribbon winner

     Whitecotton’s training as a nurse, paired with her considerable experience as an administrator and her empathy as parent of two, makes her uniquely suited for the job.

     She had logged over 16 years as a neonatal nurse when she was promoted to the director of nursing for Carolinas Medical Center’s (CMC) existing children’s hospital. After managing multiple areas focused on nursing services and care delivery for children, she moved into the role of chief nursing executive in 1997, where she was responsible for the majority of inpatient operations for CMC. In this position she learned first-hand “what it takes to run a hospital.” And while she was installed as administrator for the Levine Children’s Hospital in September of last year, she has been intimately involved with the project since planning began in 2001.

     While Whitecotton’s academic accomplishments, nursing acumen and business experience make her a more-than-desirable candidate for the position of hospital administrator, her character, perspective and passion are what make her a vital component to the success of the new Levine Children’s Hospital.


Assessment and Planning

     During her tenure as chief nursing executive for CMC, Whitecotton was assigned to its Center of Excellence for children’s services. While evaluating the quality of existing care, Whitecotton realized that CMC’s existing children’s services were something “really special.”

      Says Whitecotton, “When we reviewed our breadth of pediatric specialists and pediatric research, we realized we were offering the services of a full children’s hospital within our existing walls. We then began to discuss how we could enhance our physical structure to leverage these resources for maximum benefit to the community.”

     A full children’s hospital must be credentialed by the National Association of Children’s Hospitals. Criteria for such a facility include being located within an academic medical center, facilitating pediatric research, and having a broad spectrum of pediatric specialists.

     Explains Whitecotton, “In a children’s hospital, physicians are board-certified and expertise is honed specifically in the treatment of children. Because of our wealth of pediatric specialists—from child anesthesiologists, radiologists and, cardiologists, to hematologist/oncologists and hepatologists—we are well equipped to deliver high-level care specifically for children.

      She adds, “The treatment of children is unique. The care involved is intrinsically different from that of an adult; but also, pediatric care centers around two patients—the child, and the child’s parents. Parents hold the knowledge and the concern for a child that isn’t old enough to do it on his/her own. Parents become our care partners in the truest sense of the word, and our charge is to make sure they have the resources they need to get the best treatment.”

      To this end, the Levine Children’s Hospital was devised to increase the support for families from both an operational and design standpoint. While CMC already operated the largest children’s hospital in the state, it needed to expand the facility to provide more complete support options.

      In terms of design goals, Whitecotton says the ideal is to reduce the number of occasions when a child must leave the carefully customized children’s environment to receive care in what can be an intimidating world of adult services.

      To accomplish this, CMC leadership invested in strategic planning initiatives before the first blueprint was ever drafted. “We had support to create a children’s hospital advisory committee comprised of community members, board members, physicians, and other caregivers. By viewing the design through the perspective of each stakeholder, we hit the ground running with a very high level of consensus. We also engaged focus groups that were incredibly productive, set up mock patient rooms for feedback, and we have a family advisory council that will continue to provide us with parental insights into children’s care.”


A Plan Comes Together

      The result is impressive. The Levine Children’s Hospital is strategically placed between the Rush S. Dickson Tower and the ICU/surgery tower and is occupied by 234 pediatric beds. The Ricky Hendrick Centers for Intensive Care include a pediatric intensive care unit, neonatal intensive care nursery, and the region’s only pediatric cardiovascular recovery unit. Also unique are a pediatric surgery unit, diagnostic center, children’s rehabilitation pavilion and the region’s only 24-hour children’s emergency department.

       The layouts of the service units are carefully designed for ambulatory and care efficiency, as well as the likely eventuality that there will be overflow into the current children’s floor. “Every children’s hospital we visited while we were making plans told us the same thing, ‘As soon as you open the doors, you will need more room.’ So we made sure that we built as much as we could, and that plans are in place to provide the best accommodations possible.”

     The design is also engineered with the finest details to make life within its walls easier for families.

     “One of my favorite elements is the Family Resource Center, which is sponsored by the Junior League,” says Whitecotton. “It is very therapeutic for families to understand a diagnosis they have been given. The resources are considerable. The Center is staffed by a medical librarian and houses a lounge and group meeting areas.”

     “Our intensive care unit was also developed very intentionally. A lot of parents told us that being in the hospital for long stretches made them feel ‘suspended in time’—that they had lost contact with their life outside these walls. It was our desire to restore that sense of connection.”

      Provisions in the ICU include separate parent rooms for sleeping and showering, in addition to sleeping couches in the room with their child. There are both quiet and ‘loud’ waiting rooms (the latter including a TV), quiet work zones for catching up on phone calls and email, and washers and dryers.

      According to Whitecotton, most parents appreciate the Child Life Program most among these distinctive features. “We have child specialists in every area of the hospital that sees children, and they are dedicated to creating a level of comfort and normalcy for them. These specialists create activities to make sure that the experience is as positive as it can possibly be.”


Human Caring: The Life Blood

     The heavily windowed facade of Levine Children’s Hospital is hallmarked with brightly colored flags, apexed with colored glass, and roofed with an outdoor play area. The inside boasts as many bells and whistles as its design will hold, all intended to support the high caliber of children’s specialists available inside.

      Recruiting has been easy. “We knew from the start that this facility was going to attract the best and the brightest. Still, we can’t help being delighted at the applications we are receiving from places like Brown and Yale, from both honor students and seasoned physicians and nurses. What we are hearing is that people want to become part of this mission from the beginning,” comments Whitecotton.

    But if Whitecotton is any indication, it takes more than just brains and experience to become a part of this team. It also takes passion, empathy and a family-centered care philosophy. “We are involved in some of the most intimate moments in people’s lives. We don’t get the privilege of having a bad day,” contends Whitecotton.

     Professional initiative, a concierge mentality, and discipleship in family-centered care are at the top of Whitecotton’s wish list. She also believes that employees must have a safe and supportive atmosphere. Levine team members will be empowered to suggest improvements that will circumvent mistakes, make routine decisions that can benefit the families without bureaucratic roadblocks.
     The administration of any hospital is a seemingly tricky business, incumbent with the complexities that occur between balancing a business, and providing optimal care for those who enter its doors. But you wouldn’t know it talking to Whitecotton.She appears confident, optimistic and ready for the task that lies ahead.

      This is due, in no small part, to the outpouring of support that Levine Children’s Hospital has enjoyed since its planning stages. “The Levines set the tone for this endeavor with their initial $10 million naming gift, and our employees have shown their commitment by contributing $3 million of their own funds.” Major donations have been given by the Overcash family ($5 million), the Hendrick family ($3 million), Wal-Mart ($2.5 million), and Clear Channel Communications ($2.5 million). Local organizations making million-dollar gifts include Bank of America, Wachovia, Southeast Anesthesiology Associates, Charlotte Radiology and the Carolina Panthers. Numerous other million-dollar gifts have been received from local families and foundations.

      “In addition to these financial gifts, we have also encountered great generosity of spirit from families who have had or have children at CMC. The warmth and commitment of the families that have guided us cannot be overstated,” Whitecotton adds.

      For her part, Whitecotton embodies all the things that either a parent or board leader would want in a top administrator. Her nursing background provides a holistic and empathetic approach to patient care; as and, as a parent, she has had to navigate first hand the rough waters of pediatric surgery and aftercare solutions. She is also smart, talented and committed, with a clear and focus on the ultimate goal: making Levine Children’s Hospital a household name for those looking for optimal children’s care.

     Explains Whitecotton, “There is no conflict between caring for people and running a successful operation. It comes down to quality and safety. If we keep the health and welfare of our patients at the forefront of every decision, the financial aspects of the business will fall in line. The healthier we can make people, the less it will cost down the line. It is my job to put systems in place that will facilitate this outcome.”

     In the first year of Levine Children’s Hospital, Whitecotton hopes to have assembled a complete team of people who embody the attributes and expectations that her staff is cultivating. In five years, she fully hopes that the hospital will become nationally recognized as a leader in children’s health care.

     “Everything has just fallen into place as a result of the dedication and goodwill of everyone involved. We all believe that the sky is the limit,” she concludes.

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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