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It’s moving day for Austin’s historic downtown hospital and its patients


University Medical Center Brackenridge will move into its new digs at Dell Seton Medical Center.

Health officials hope that, as of 7 a.m. Sunday, people will remember to head to the new hospital.

Employees have gone through “moving day classes” and rehearsals as officials orchestrate the move.

At 7 a.m. Sunday, doctors at the old University Medical Center Brackenridge will lock the front doors. Across the street, at the same time, doctors at the new Dell Seton Medical Center will turn on the lights, pull up the blinds, unlock the doors and start accepting patients.

With that, UMC Brackenridge will be closed to the public.

And moving day will commence.

For pretty much the entire day – it’s not clear exactly how long it will take – a carefully orchestrated symphony will be performed by an ensemble of doctors, nurses, paramedics, construction workers, custodians, office managers and patients. By the end, the old hospital will have been moved into the new one. And Brackenridge — the hub of Austin medicine for a century – will give way to its successor.

Health officials hope that, as of 7 a.m. Sunday, people will head to the new hospital with their various ailments. But they say they understand if someone heads for Brackenridge instead.

“If they get through the road closures and miss the signs,” said Thomas Caven, the hospital medical director, “we’ll get them where they need to go.”

RELATED: 5 things to know about Dell Seton Medical Center

The story of moving day really goes back to fall of 2012. That is when many Austin-area leaders, most notably Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson, persuaded voters to approve a property tax increase to fund a University of Texas medical school. The package sold to voters: The medical school would be the cornerstone of a partnership of UT, Travis County’s health care district and Seton Healthcare Family. The partnership would deliver a medical school, numerous clinics and other facilities and – this is where moving day comes in – a new hospital run by Seton, to replace the aging UMC Brackenridge facility.

Seton officials are careful to point out that property tax dollars are not funding the new $310 million hospital. The health care provider paid $260 million and led a $50 million fundraising campaign, though the facility sits on publicly owned land it is leasing from Central Health.

The new hospital is almost totally furnished. Much of the equipment going from the old hospital to the new one, such as a CT scanner (which takes x-rays and produces images of the inside of the body) has been moved. Hospital officials say the plan for moving the patients and personnel on Sunday has been honed over more than a year.

RELATED: Dell Seton opens amid growing focus on wellness

Employees have gone through “moving day classes” to know their individual responsibilities. The hospitals have gone through two rounds of full rehearsals, including one on May 16 that moved eight people who were pretending to be patients with critical needs, such as a reliance on ventilators. They also have had numerous rounds of “scavenger hunts and scrimmages … where we were trying to simulate a lot of scenarios so we know how to use the building,” said David Shackelford, the project manager overseeing the new hospital’s creation.

One rehearsal gave a glimpse into the logistical challenges that the new hospital’s designers needed to address.

The helicopter pad at the new hospital is on the seventh floor. This was a concession to the state-protected downtown views of the Capitol, which required a taller and thinner building than might otherwise have been designed, Shackelford said. The helipad is seven floors up from the emergency room, which is on the ground floor to minimize the distance from ambulances. This is not an ideal setup for STAR Flight crews carrying in severely injured patients from around Central Texas.

For the STAR Flight rehearsal, crews took a mock patient down an ER-only elevator to the emergency room, carrying out a mock diagnosis for the gathered television cameras.

That rehearsal went off without a hitch – which is what hospital officials say they expect on moving day.

But it will be a busy day.

The hospital has gradually reduced its patient load, referring people who did not need emergency treatment to other health care facilities. After 7 a.m. Sunday, anyone who misses the numerous signs and circumvents the road closures to reach UMC Brackenridge’s emergency room will be directed to the new hospital.

The exception is the psychiatric emergency department, which will remain at UMC Brackenridge until health care officials can find a permanent location, Shackelford said.

Still, depending on how raucous Central Texas gets on Friday and Saturday night, the old hospital will still be caring for perhaps 160 patients when, at 8 a.m., 14 ambulances begin moving them.

The plan calls for moving one patient every 6 to 12 minutes, continually, until they are all safe in their beds at the new hospital. Depending on how smoothly things go, the move can be sped up or slowed down, said Caven, the medical director.

“It’s going to be busy, but never hectic,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have ambulances stacked up.”

Still, not everything will go as planned. Of that, almost everyone is certain, from the contractor hired to oversee the move to the nurses helping move the patients. A water pipe could burst beneath one of the sidewalks between the hospitals. A walkie-talkie battery could go dead. One of the ventilators might not work properly. Some of the computerized records systems or high-tech gizmos in patient rooms might have a glitch.

So, down a long hallway just past Dell Seton Medical Center’s main entrance, in the hospital board room, a “command center” full of officials and hospital employees will monitor the move. Each floor of the new hospital will have a “boss” overseeing the transition, Caven said, with another tracking everything that comes in or out the front doors. Caven, who will be in the command center for most or all of the move, will have a senior physician acting as his “free safety” looking to intercept problems.

“At some point, (Brackenridge) will run out of patients,” Caven said. Then it will close.

Some would-be patients will probably still make for UMC Brackenridge in the coming days. But Caven said hospital officials have experienced the opposite problem.

“We’ve actually had people show up (at the new hospital) before we’re open,” he said. “We had to cover up some of our opening banners.”

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