Innovations Make Great Care Available Locally
Madison County, growth engine for the state, continues to attract the type of people most cities only dream of. Educated, technologically savvy, and younger than the national average, they come to our area for the economic opportunities and lifestyle Huntsville and Madison have to offer. A growing healthcare capability is a crucial part of the mix.
That capability takes many forms. Part of it is healthcare facilities, and the signs are everywhere, from the new Madison Hospital which opened in early 2012 to Huntsville Hospital’s new Orthopedic & Spine Tower, now coming out of the ground across from the hospital’s main entrance.
As the hospitals expand, new medical practices grow up around them. That’s especially true at Madison Hospital, where a cluster of medical office buildings near the hospital has created a new Madison medical district. New medical office buildings have sprouted up around both Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center as established medical practices expand and new practices come into being.
But medicine is more than bricks and mortar. Madison County attracts some of the nation’s brightest and most talented medical practitioners, which has contributed to a near doubling of Madison County’s population of doctors and medical specialists since 2000.
These new practitioners, aided by exciting new medical technology, have raised the bar to a level of medical care that did not exist just a few years ago. Many are not aware of the major advancements in Madison County healthcare that are negating the old adage that “you need to go to Nashville or Birmingham to have that procedure done.” Except for certain procedures such as organ transplants and intensive burn treatment, medical care equal to that found anywhere else can now be had locally.
So Much Now Available Locally
No one is in a better position to comment on the major leaps forward in Huntsville medical care than Huntsville Hospital Health System CEO David Spillers.
“It might have been true a few years back,” says Spillers, “that you had to go to Nashville or Birmingham, but it’s certainly no longer the case. With a few exceptions like transplants, patients in Madison County or anywhere in the Tennessee Valley can get just about any type of treatment they need at Huntsville Hospital.”
Since 2010 the Huntsville Hospital Health System has expanded to include ownership or management of hospitals in Madison, Decatur, Athens, Boaz, Guntersville, Sheffield, Moulton, Russellville, Red Bay and Fayetteville, TN. And while Spillers takes pride in that, he gets excited about recent innovations and treatment facilities for a host of medical conditions .
Foremost among those is the new Orthopedic & Spinal Tower, the largest healthcare construction project in Huntsville in the past 40 years. Viewed from the main building’s second floor, one gets a clear view of the enormity of this seven-story project, which when complete in 2021 will total almost 400,000 square feet. In addition to 72 dedicated patient beds, space is planned for 24 operating rooms, physical therapy space, and other facilities to provide the ultimate in care.
Spillers cites the economies of scale that will result from concentrating a critical mass of spinal and orthopedic treatment power under one big roof.
Those economies of scale will allow the Orthopedic & Spine Tower to become known across the Southeast. “It will give our staff exposure to a very large patient base,” Spillers says. “When you do things in volume you get very efficient; you see so many patients that you learn to spot so many conditions early on.”
But innovations don’t have to take the form of massive new buildings. Sometimes just doing things better can make the difference in patients’ lives.
The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children falls into that category. Recently expanded and the only Level III NICU between Nashville and Birmingham, it provides an unparalleled level of care to premature and sick infants. With 45 beds now and 10 more to be added with the latest expansion, the hospital unit provides treatment to about 1,100 babies each year.
Fully staffed with obstetricians, surgeons, and specialists like neonatologists and pediatric pulmonologists, about the only care they cannot provide, says NICU Director Cheryl Case, is neonatal cardiac surgery. These specialists work every day with what Case calls a “tremendous amount of technology for the care of these children.”
Most people today are aware of the devastating effect of birth defects, but as Case explains, it is often a mother’s health issues that lead to problems with their babies. “But we can usually provide a much better outcome if we can get the high–risk mother transferred here early.”
Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children’s Neonatal ICU garnered national attention in December 2017 when Eric and Courtney Waldrop of Albertville chose the hospital to deliver the first set of sextuplets born in Alabama since 2002. “They chose to deliver here even though they could easily have gone to Birmingham,” Case says.
Newborns are not the only ones to benefit from the hospital staff’s passion for care. Pediatric hematologist-oncologist Dr. Jennifer Cox presides over a small but crucial operation that has made a huge difference in the care and treatment of children with cancer. The St. Jude Affiliate Clinic links with the world–renowned St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to provide many of the cancer treatment services formerly only available at St. Jude’s main campus in Memphis.
Convenience, says Dr. Cox, was the initial driver. Delivery of many of St. Jude’s services right here in Madison County saves parents the four–hour drive to Memphis and the expense of hotels, meals, and other travel costs. She is quick to point out how the combination of local services with world–class cancer specialists in Memphis makes it much easier on the parents of children with cancer.
“Pediatric cancer care requires frequent trips to the hospital, and that takes a toll on families. We can do most of that here at the Huntsville clinic, which saves a ton of travel for families. So these children get much of their cancer care here, with access to the specialists in Memphis. We help create the critical mass that allows St. Jude in Memphis to keep those people on staff.”
The Affiliate Clinic serves from 30 to 40 pediatric cancer patients at any given time, and Dr. Cox, and her staff work hard to provide a child-friendly atmosphere for their young patients.
“It’s a joy to take care of these kids. We see families at both the worst of times and best of times, but we strive to make it easier for the children. Part of that is making cancer treatment as much fun as possible. We have, for example, ‘No Mo Chemo’ parties for children who have finished their chemotherapy treatments,” she says.
One measure of success, says Dr. Cox, is the reaction from children at the end of their cancer treatments. “They scream more about having to leave here than they do about the treatments. They don’t want to give up the fun.”
Specialized Treatment Centers
Just south of town Crestwood Medical Center is making a difference in the lives of ALS patients. Marking its 10th anniversary in 2019, Crestwood’s ALS Care Clinic brings together the various services needed by those suffering from this debilitating malady, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. A Certified Treatment Center of Excellence recognized by the national ALS Association, the clinic provides a multidisciplinary care program and treatment for the management of ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
Going beyond care and treatment, the Care Clinic also serves as a center for ALS research. Crestwood ALS Care Clinic Director Sherry Kolodziejczak explains that research is part of the overall ALS package. “To get the distinction of being known as a center of excellence, you have to have a comprehensive treatment team and be doing research.”
To accomplish those objectives, Kolodziejczak is supported by two co-directors and eminent ALS neurologists: Doctors David White and Aruna Arora. Operating on a rotating basis, each doctor is present at the clinic three days each week. Their roles are primarily treatment–oriented, which leaves Kolodziejczak the primary responsibility of managing the operation and directing the ongoing ALS research.
Part of that research involves an ongoing collaboration with HudsonAlpha Institute to explore the genetic causes of ALS. Called Impacting ALS, the study conducts genomic sequencing and analysis of ALS patients from the ALS Care Clinic. Funded largely by the Alabama chapter of the ALS Association, Kolodziejczak says it’s the largest of Crestwood’s three ALS research projects.
But it’s the difference the ALS Care Center makes in patients’ lives that makes it so special, says Kolodziejczak.
“We had an ALS patient who wanted to visit friends and family in California, to visit the Grand Canyon, to work through his bucket list of places he wanted to see. At the time of the request he was dependent on a ventilator and feeding tube. We made all the connections with hospital staff and ALS clinics in other locations and he completed his journey, the last trip he and his wife were able to take.”
“When he came back he said he would never forget all we did for him. This clinic became his safety net and foundation.”
Today, Parkinson’s disease is a scourge that thus far has eluded cure. Its tremors and progressive difficulty with bodily movements and speech lead to increasing disability. Not known by many even in North Alabama, Huntsville Hospital’s Parkinson’s Care Clinic brings together specially trained physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists and exercise physiologists in a program designed to strengthen the bodies of Parkinson’s sufferers and delay the progression of the disease.
In addition to the Parkinson’s Care Clinic at the hospital’s downtown Medical Mall, Parkinson’s patients benefit from a unique program called Rock Steady Boxing.
Offered through the Huntsville–Madison County Senior Center and underwritten by Huntsville Hospital’s Jean Wessel Templeton Community Health Initiative, the class uses the strenuous physical activity provided by shadow boxing and hitting a punching bag to slow progression of the disease. Madison Hospital has also seen its share of the new facilities. In January, it opened a new Endoscopy Center, a 10,000-square-foot facility that doubles the space available on the hospital campus for outpatient endoscopy procedures including colonoscopy and EGD, or upper endoscopy.
“We’re very pleased to open this new center, which will allow these important diagnostic procedures to be done close to home,” says Mary Lynne Wright, Madison Hospital president.
While Madison County is well-served by the widening array of procedures and programs now available locally, it may be years before such procedures as heart and kidney transplants become available here. As Spillers explains, rising healthcare costs across the U.S. require a critical mass of patients and procedures to justify the expense of securing the specialists and specialized equipment to support these procedures.
“But the way Madison County is growing,” Spillers said, “who knows where we will be in five or 10 more years.”