Mercyhealth’s Hospital: Inside Rockford’s Biggest Development

Bringing a vision to life in northeast Rockford, Mercyhealth has spent more than $505 million on its new hospital, all the while investing at its longtime west Rockford home.

Mercyhealth’s New Javon Bea Hospital and Physician Clinic–Riverside (Photos provided by Mercyhealth)
Mercyhealth’s New Javon Bea Hospital and Physician Clinic–Riverside (Photos provided by Mercyhealth)

Rockford’s most expensive construction project in history towers over the cornfields of the city’s far northeast side. It imposes itself on the landscape of Interstate 90. And although it doesn’t open until January 5, it’s already making itself known in the region’s health care market.

Pulling together a new, $505 million hospital is no small feat, and yet the speed at which Mercyhealth’s Javon Bea Hospital and Physician Clinic–Riverside has come together is nearly unrivaled.

And then there’s the fact that, although the new campus on Riverside Boulevard is moving some patients from the former Rockford Memorial Hospital on Rockton Avenue, Mercyhealth has committed nearly $50 million to preserve medical and emergency services on Rockford’s west side.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, in a revitalization effort that, according to Mercyhealth, amounts to this single health care system spending more than $1 billion in construction, staffing and operational upgrades in the Rockford region.

That everything came together in less than three years isn’t just a reflection of Mercyhealth’s determination to get things done. It’s also a testament to the region’s readiness to pitch in.

“The services this facility will provide will expand the breadth and depth of medical services available in our community to an entirely new level,” says Javon R. Bea, president and CEO of Mercyhealth. “The increased access to and availability of stellar patient care will be dramatic. It really is remarkable to see how we are making our vision a reality, working together with the communities we serve.”

Every part of the Riverside Campus was designed to satisfy the needs of young patients and older patients alike.
Every part of the Riverside Campus was designed to satisfy the needs of young patients and older patients alike.

Fast, Yet Thorough

It just doesn’t feel like a hospital.

A big hotel, maybe. But not that sterile white hospital of memory.

It’s by careful design that the Javon Bea Hospital and Physician Clinic–Riverside is drenched in sunlight, with wide-open lobbies and reminders of the natural world everywhere – stone and wood facings, colorful artwork, earthy color palettes on every floor. Come January this hospital will serve adult patients while providing one of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin’s most in-depth centers for pediatric, neonatal and obstetric care.

Walking in from the building’s northern entrance, patients and visitors are greeted by open, airy spaces and splashes of warm earth tones – the stone wall, wood-faced desks and a massive mosaic mural, composed of 181,366 tiles in shades of blue, green and white. This area is playful and relaxed by design: it’s where mothers-to-be and children will enter. Downstairs, adults find a separate lobby entrance where there’s a more subdued color palette.

“We deal with a lot of specialties that are high-risk, so we wanted to create a playful yet sophisticated environment,” says Joanna Benning, Mercyhealth’s vice president of facilities and construction, who oversaw the building process. “We wanted not only to get patients to their destination quickly, but we also wanted to give them the feeling that they’re coming into a center of healing and comfort.”

Throughout the design process, evidence-based standards played a major role in shaping decisions. It’s one reason the building’s physician clinic wing integrates so closely with the hospital.

“For example, the pediatric floor of the hospital is joined with the floor of the clinic that houses pediatric subspecialists,” says Dr. John Dorsey, vice president of physician services and chief medical officer for Illinois. “So, if the physician is in the clinic and gets an urgent call to the hospital, they get there very quickly.”

Patient experience drills, conducted throughout the construction process, informed a myriad of smaller choices and operational matters, including education, training and live drills on how to move patients from the Rockton Campus to the Riverside Campus, including the babies in the region’s largest neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

“We did these prototypes of patients to make sure that each element, all the way from parking and entrance of the site, to the facility and first contact, were all being done correctly,” Benning explains. “For example, we would say, ‘Nicholas is a NICU baby coming in from out of state; he’s coming by helicopter. How is he entering the facility, where is he going in, what are his travel steps? And we go through all of the care that needs to be given. When parents come to the campus, how are they received? Where are they going?”

From the groundbreaking in June 2016 to the January 2019 opening, just 28 months have elapsed. Critical to that speed were AECOM, a Los Angeles-based architectural and engineering firm, as well as Mortenson, a Minneapolis-based firm that specializes in hospital construction. Their innovations and technologies were critical to staying on deadline.

“If we were able to fabricate anything off-site that could be brought in, to put it in place faster, we did that,” says Benning. “But we also used about 5,000 craft workers from the Rockford region. So, whatever we could do to maximize efficiencies, we did.”

Mortenson deployed high-tech drones to gather project data, relaying dimensional data and 3-D models that helped to map and plan site work. Whereas a drone can work in 30 minutes, traditional methods would take two human surveyors two days in such a large building, according to a Mortenson spokeswoman.

“With a project this size, there will always be challenges,” says Benning. “But as a team, we did what we always do and overcame them.”

Greg Werner, senior vice president for Mortenson, adds:“The investment that Mercyhealth has made in providing this state-of-the-art medical center is tremendous and will continue providing unparalleled resources for the entire region and its surrounding communities for many years to come. Mercyhealth, AECOM and Mortenson worked side-by-side throughout the accelerated 28-month construction project to deliver the 563,000-square-foot, world-class hospital and physician clinic on-time and under budget – evidence of the entire team’s commitment to a culture of teamwork and innovation.”

An earthy color palette and natural elements, such as wood surfaces and designs of critters, help the new Javon Bea Hospital and Physician Clinic–Riverside to feel more comforting.
An earthy color palette and natural elements, such as wood surfaces and designs of critters, help the new Javon Bea Hospital and Physician Clinic–Riverside to feel more comforting.

Advanced Services

It’s a late afternoon in December, and Louise Hauser, RN, is milling around the pediatric unit, preparing for public walk-throughs.

Inside one room, she starts pointing out all of the small touches that make this room cozier and more comforting for a child. Pictures of a summer garden fixed onto the ceiling. Dragonflies inlaid in the flooring and the walls. Warm, earthen-colored stone and tile in the large bathroom. A round portal window on the lower part of the door so children can peer out. Windows near the unit’s entrance overlook the hospital’s main lobby and the colorful mobile suspended from its ceiling.

“And several of our rooms overlook the unit’s lobby, so you can watch to see if mom and dad are coming, or maybe Grandma and Grandpa,” says Hauser, head of the pediatric unit. “It’s another good opportunity for patients to see what’s going on outside. It’s a lot less scary for them. That’s why we also try to hide a lot of things, so there’s not a lot of medical pieces out for them to look at.”

Elsewhere on the unit, interactive projectors cast images that children can manipulate. Step on a field and “kick” a soccer ball, or poke the animated fish to watch them scatter.

These are the sorts of touches that further enhance the only designated children’s hospital in northern Illinois.
“Not only are we pleased to get that designation, but it also demands from us an ongoing commitment to making sure that children are treated at our facility with the highest-level care,” says Dorsey.

The designation reflects the wide range of pediatric and obstetrical care available at the new Riverside Campus, including a 52-bed, Level III (highest level) neonatal intensive care unit serving premature, critically ill and injured newborns from 11 counties in northern Illinois and another four in southern Wisconsin. It also has a small baby unit (for babies born weighing less than 2.2 pounds), a state-recognized pediatric intensive care unit, access to the REACT helicopter transport teams, pediatric critical care, plus more than 55 pediatric specialists in 29 subspecialties.

In addition to these pediatric specialties, the hospital carries a bevy of related assets, including highly trained and experienced nurses, child life specialists and other providers of specialized critical and emergency care.

Covering 563,000 square feet the six-floor hospital and four-floor physician clinic encompass nearly 12 acres under roof, all situated on 263 acres of prairie land. Above one part of the building, a rooftop garden covers nearly one acre with a playground, a meditation area and lots of greenery. It’s visible from many patient rooms, a factor which Mercyhealth officials believe contributes to the healing experience.

No matter which side of the hospital they’re on, patients in the hospital’s 194 private inpatient suites are being served with the sort of breakthrough technologies that hospital CEO Bea calls “space-age.”

Dorsey is particularly excited about the new hybrid operating suite, which combines the features of a traditional operating suite with advanced imaging technology. It allows physicians to make real-time assessments and provides greater interactive surgical and radiographic flexibility.

“Now, we can do all of that under sterile technique in one hybrid operating suite, without having to move the patient, which leads to faster recovery,” says Dorsey.

Caregivers are also excited about new technologies integrated right into the patient experience, adds Dorsey. Small tablets, or “placards,” outside each room allow doctors and nursing teams to share information about patient care quickly, easily and confidentially.

Inside the room, traditional whiteboards are replaced with interactive screens where caregivers can post notes and interface with patient medical records.

“Now, you can pull up radiology images on the large board, right there for the patient and their family to view,” explains Dorsey. “It’s really helpful from an educational perspective.”

Local dignitaries and Mercyhealth board members gathered for a dedication and ribbon cutting Dec. 5.
Local dignitaries and Mercyhealth board members gathered for a dedication and ribbon cutting Dec. 5.

Building a Team

The advanced technologies and capabilities housed inside the Javon Bea Hospital and Physician Clinic–Riverside are proving an important tool for recruiting new staff.

“The presence of the new hospital has been a real opportunity to recruit high-quality, experienced physicians,” says Dorsey. “And that’s great for the community. But we’ve also seen the same effect in other positions of medical care delivery, such as nurses, techs and others. So, the facility itself is completely state-of-the-art and it would be hard to find any facility, anywhere else, that’s going to be as sophisticated as what we can offer.”

Over the past year, Mercyhealth has brought on more than 290 new W-2 physicians and more than 500 employee/partners to meet its expanded needs. And, it’s bringing in specialties and services not previously available in the Rockford region. Recruiting efforts have brought physicians from across the country.

“Physicians are excited to work for Mercyhealth because they can do more progressive clinical work in this facility,” says Bea. “We have specialists coming from around the country wanting to practice here, and that’s obviously going to raise the level of medical subspecialty care for the Rockford region.”

New specialists won’t be the only new arrivals. Mercyhealth is also preparing for its first crop of physician residents, members of the new Mercyhealth Internal Medicine Residency Program and Family Medicine Residency Program.

Starting this July, medical students will complete their residencies while practicing at Mercyhealth properties in Rockford. Some 2,600 prospective physicians applied for 13 internal medicine positions and 12 family medicine spots. By 2022, the program will rotate 75 physician residents.

“And we’re considering other residencies, as well,” says Dorsey. “I think this reflects the fact that Mercyhealth should be a major contributor to medical education. And, we will continue to work with University of Illinois College of Medicine-Rockford.”

NICU rooms are designed to accommodate twins, if needed. Butterflies on the floor indicate which part of the hospital you’re in.
NICU rooms are designed to accommodate twins, if needed. Butterflies on the floor indicate which part of the hospital you’re in.

Catering to a Population

Mercyhealth President and CEO Bea talks a lot about vision, and the new hospital that bears his name is the product of a very long-range vision.

Years before Bea and Mercy Health System of Janesville teamed up with Rockford Health System, plans had been laid for medical services in northeast Rockford. It was during Rockford’s building boom of the 1990s and 2000s that Mercyhealth’s predecessor bought nearly 263 acres of farmland at Riverside and I-90.

But for a long time, building there just wasn’t in the cards. Over the five years prior to the merger, Rockford Health System had experienced a $48.6 million loss on net income from operations. Within one year, Bea had established a positive bottom line of $24.4 million net income.

In August 2015, Mercyhealth officials told the Illinois Health Facilities and Review Board, the state’s chief hospital regulator, that it was time to build on Riverside Boulevard.

In its application for a Certificate of Need – the regulatory approval needed to begin construction – Mercyhealth offered several plans, including a total renovation or replacement of its Rockton Avenue facility, a total abandonment of Rockton Avenue, or a hybrid that meant relocating some services.

To adapt the aging hospital to modern standards, or otherwise replace it on-site, would have cost upwards of $675 million and disrupted hospital services, Mercyhealth concluded. Abandonment wasn’t salient because of the hospital’s impact on west Rockford. But adapting the Rockton Avenue location while moving some services to Riverside could serve patients in Illinois and Wisconsin who would otherwise travel to Madison, Wis., Milwaukee and Chicago for similar services. Many of those patients could originate from Rockford and other Mercyhealth facilities in Wisconsin and McHenry County.

“This hospital is strategically located,” Dorsey explains. “It’s almost in the center of our regional circle and it has easy access. So, as time goes by, we will continue to offer appropriate services at our hospitals in Janesville, Walworth (Wis.) and Harvard (Ill.), but there may be tertiary services we focus on Riverside.”

State and local officials quickly got behind Mercyhealth’s plans for a Riverside hospital, in a rare show of unity for hospital proposals. Three months after its application arrived, Mercyhealth received approval from state regulators. It broke ground seven months later, in June 2016.

“If you were in the suburbs and you were going to try to pull together a project like this, you’d run through a lot more red tape and it would take a lot longer,” says Nathan Bryant, president and CEO of Rockford Area Economic Development Council. “One of the things we’re very proud about is that Mercyhealth, in partnership with the City of Rockford, expedited the largest construction project in the history of Winnebago County.”

Committing to the Home Base

Beyond the $505 million it’s spending on the Riverside hospital, Mercyhealth has been making a series of additional investments around the region, including the addition of two new clinics and two expanded clinics. But most notable is the $50 million it’s invested to keep surgical and emergency medical services on Rockford’s west side – a major priority, as Bea sees it.

“Having one hospital on two campuses in the Rockford area means that our patients will benefit from even greater access to services,” he says. “Our range of services will continue to grow, which is good news for everyone in the community.”

Starting in January, Javon Bea Hospital and Physician Clinic–Rockton will have 94 private inpatient rooms with an emphasis on adult patients, comprehensive emergency and surgical services, an intensive care unit, and specialty services, including behavioral health, inpatient dialysis and an adult clinic. Improvements already made include a new, $5 million, 22-room Orthopedic Center of Excellence, an expanded chemotherapy center, an upgraded robotics laboratory and a new helipad.

As some services transition out of the Rockton Campus, children and adults will continue to be seen at both hospital campuses. No matter where you go, “We’ve got you covered,” says Dorsey. Free shuttles and ambulance services will transfer guests and patients between locations.

“We want people not to have to worry which hospital they show up at,” says Dorsey. “That’s our responsibility to make sure they’re cared for.”

During a Dec. 8 open house event, nearly 8,000 people toured through Mercyhealth’s new hospital. Displays like this show how the 194 private suites will be used starting in January.
During a Dec. 8 open house event, nearly 8,000 people toured through Mercyhealth’s new hospital. Displays like this show how the 194 private suites will be used starting in January.

The Ripple Effect

Mercyhealth’s recent investments are impressive enough on their own, raising the standard of care in the region. It’s hard to overlook the other commitments being made among our region’s health care providers.

Earlier this year, OSF HealthCare Saint Anthony Medical Center completed a 144,247-square-foot, four-story tower at its east Rockford location. The $85 million upgrade introduced 78 new private rooms and numerous amenities including a kitchen demonstration area and a PromptCare facility.

Meanwhile, SwedishAmerican Hospital, a Division of UW Health, has committed to a $126 million expansion at its campus in Rockford’s Midtown District. Expected to be complete in 2020, these improvements include a larger emergency department, surgical areas and catheterization labs, in addition to a four-story tower serving women and children. Plans call for the new tower to have a Level III NICU and pediatric behavioral health beds.

By late 2019, SwedishAmerican expects to have completed three new clinics in the city’s northeast, northwest and southeast quadrants, totaling more than $37 million.

All of this growth is the sign of a healthy economy, says Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara, who’s excited by the promise of additional jobs – which in turn, support growing educational programs that feed employment demand.

“Something that goes a little bit under the radar is that each of these health care facilities needs doctors, nurses, technicians,” says McNamara. “We have done a great job, as a community, of aligning our educational system at the high school level, at Rock Valley College and at our local employers, providing a pipeline of health care employees.”

At the same time, the introduction of new services and specialties stands to keep more Rockford-area patients in our region while attracting patients who would otherwise travel elsewhere.

Mercyhealth’s new Javon Bea Hospital and Physician Clinic–Riverside is an economic “bellwether,” a signal of the region’s growing strength across industries, says Bryant. In time, he sees opportunities for additional business growth nearby, most notably in the form of retailers and hotels that will serve hospital patients and their visitors.
“It is a tide that’s rising all boats in our world of health care,” says Bryant.

Bringing it Together

Come Jan. 5, 2019, Mercyhealth executes its grand finale – perhaps the most challenging logistical feat yet.

Moving its youngest – and most fragile – patients from the Rockton Campus to the Riverside Campus is no small task. So far, more than 200 Mercyhealth employee/partners and volunteers have each spent some 200 hours of rehearsals focused around the move. That’s on top of the nearly 34,000 hours of training and education undergone by some 2,000 employee/partners as they prepare to welcome the first patients.

“You’re going to see ambulances going in a line going down Riverside, all in one lane,” Bea predicted during the Dec. 5 ribbon-cutting.

“It’s difficult for people not involved to understand the magnitude and scope of a project this size, but I can tell you it’s truly remarkable,” Bea added. “When you think of a project like this, you might not think about the services we’re going to provide, the lives we’re going to save, the jobs we’re going to create.… Just as the ancient cathedrals became facilities of healing and comfort for the sick, so will this facility become a facility of healing and comfort for our region and an economic catalyst that supports our friends and neighbors for decades to come.”