Connors Keeps Children's Hospital Together

March 27, 2007
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Pediatric surgeon Dr. Bob Connors is president of the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, but he doesn't work there.

Right now, there is no "there." While children's beds are located on the top two floors, other children's services are scattered throughout Spectrum Health's Butterworth Campus. Connors' office is across the street in the Women and Children's Center. And the location on Michigan Street where a $250 million building devoted to children's health care will someday stand is currently a hole in the ground.

But Connors is ready to tie the bow on the potential he saw 15 years ago for strides in children's health care in the Furniture City.

"Our mission statement is caring for kids and families with compassion and excellence and innovation," Connors said. "And we're very serious about that, and we want to be one of the best children's hospitals in the country. So that's really our dream. Part of that dream is a new children's hospital."

A native of Vermillion, S.D., a small town in the state's southeastern corner, Connors arrived at the University of Michigan Medical School armed with an undergraduate degree from Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

"It was a real interesting time to be in Washington. Those were the Vietnam War era days, and for a kid from small town South Dakota, it was eye-opening to be in Washington," he said.

Connors had an uncle living in Ann Arbor and had spent a college summer working in a laboratory there. So he was pleased to be accepted as a U-M medical student.

"I liked the idea of being in a field where you worked with people and did something meaningful and all those things," Connors said. "I liked being in a profession, too. And I was always interested in science, so it was a good fit for me."

Drawn to both surgery and pediatrics during medical student rotations, Connors decided to combine his interests and become a pediatric surgeon. Medical school was followed by two years of surgical training, then two years as a U.S. Army surgeon in Germany. Two more years of pediatric surgical training in Washington, D.C., followed, and Connors ended up at St. Louis University and Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital.

In 1990, after five years in St. Louis, Connors came across a solicitation for a pediatric surgeon at what was then Butterworth Hospital.

"I saw a lot of possibilities here that intrigued me, so I ended up coming," he said. "What I saw, actually, was kind of an unusual situation in a very nice community that had a tradition of a very strong, very high-quality medical community that hadn't really developed children's services very much yet."

Yet the pieces were in place: young, dedicated doctors, a training program for residents in pediatrics, and a busy neonatal unit. "One of the things that pediatric surgeons are known for, of course, is our special expertise in operating on tiny babies," Connors said.

"I was pretty convinced we could do a tremendous amount of growing in children's services here, and I was convinced that this was the kind of hospital and community that wanted to do that. And I guess one of the really nice things for me is that that's the way it worked out."

Connors has been director of pediatric surgery, director of pediatric trauma services and director of surgery services at DeVos Children's Hospital. He is a member of the board of trustees for Spectrum Health Hospitals and an associate clinical professor in the department of surgery of Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. After two stints as acting medical director for pediatrics, Connors was appointed president of the children's hospital in 2005.

Connors said recruiting staff is a big part of his job.

"There never have been too many pediatric specialists," Connors said. "And so it can be a challenge to find the right people that want to come to the Upper Midwest and be in a place like Grand Rapids, but I think we have great opportunities to have the kind of people that we need.

"I think my piece in that is that they know I have a strong belief in our mission and in the vision of where we're going, and that I have a long history here now."

One person Connors convinced to move to Grand Rapids is neurodevelopmental pediatrician Dr. Nancy Dodge. Dodge moved here from Dallas last June.

"I was so impressed with the city and what it had to offer, and the environment of the children's hospital and the faculty that I work with here," said Dodge, whose grandparents live in Muskegon.

Dodge interviewed with Connors even before he was chosen to lead the children's hospital. "He's just such a down-to-earth person," Dodge said. "He knows Grand Rapids, knows West Michigan. He's been in the trenches taking care of kids here for years, and he's still practicing so he knows what we deal with as practicing physicians. He's such a good listener and that's an excellent quality in a physician, but also is equally important as an administrator.

"I know if I'm going to him with an issue or concern, he's really listening to me."

The Helen DeVos Children's Hospital began with a name and concept in 1993, four years before the merger of Butterworth and Blodgett hospitals into Spectrum Health, Connors said. Eventually, regular beds and intensive care beds were dedicated for children on the top two floors of Spectrum Butterworth, but other children's programs still are scattered in other locations. "In a way, we sort of exist as more of a spiritual entity than a physical entity," Dodge said.

"Right now we have our neonatal services in one building, and some of our patient services are in another building, and some of our patient care services are in yet another building, and the operating room is in yet another building, and the emergency department is down on the ground floor — and so you get the gist: We're kind of spread all over the place," Connors said.

The National Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions estimates there are 250 children's hospitals in the U.S., a little under 5 percent of the nation's 4,908 hospitals. About 50 of those are free-standing, teaching hospitals, according to the association, while about 100 are "large pediatric programs organized within larger medical centers that generally (but not always) call themselves children's hospitals."

DeVos Children's Hospital falls into the latter category, because it is not licensed as a separate facility.

In addition to DeVos Children's Hospital, Michigan has four other units designated as children's hospitals: The Children's Hospital at Bronson in Kalamazoo; Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit; C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor; and the Sparrow Regional Children's Center in Lansing.

Bronson is investing $38 million to renovate its Center Building into the North Pavilion for pediatrics, high-risk pregnancies and adult inpatient, with the intention of someday turning it into a children's hospital. The facility is set to open this month.

Sparrow is adding a 10-story west wing to its hospital. The new tower will include a $5 million, 14-bed, 4,100-square-foot pediatrics emergency room, as well as the general emergency department. The tower is expected to be completed in December.

The University of Michigan is constructing a $523 million new facility for Mott Children's Hospital and the Women's Hospital, expected to open in spring 2011.

In its 14 floors, the new $250 million Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, scheduled to open at the end of 2010, is planning for a net gain of 14 beds, for a total of around 200, making it the largest in the state. About 80 beds are expected to be dedicated to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Connors said the NICU often runs at 70 or more beds, placing it just below the largest five of the estimated 114 neonatal units in the nation, according to the National Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions. Also in Grand Rapids, St. Mary's Health Care has a 15-bed NICU.

Although the interior design process is just getting underway, Connors offered a few glimpses into plans for the new hospital. Among them:

  • One floor will be aligned as an extension of the current NICU on the third floor. Following the latest national trend, the neonatal unit will be reconfigured into private rooms. Accommodations will be made for larger areas for multiple births, Connors said.

  • Three floors will be below grade, so the building will appear to be 11 stories tall.

  • The pediatric sedation unit will be surrounded by the emergency department, the imaging department and a special procedures area, so that they may more easily use sedation services.

  • Operating rooms will have private waiting areas designed for families and will allow parents more access to their children before and after surgery, a plan in which Connors said he was personally involved.

At the suggestion of children who've been advising the design process, planners are figuring out a way to have kid-friendly food available whenever the children want it. "That fundamentally changes the way you actually serve your food," Connors said.

"A lot of our patients are babies and very small children, so one of our challenges is to make the place comfortable for young parents and babies, as well as for a teenager who's twice as big as I am," he added.

Fund-raising by the DeVos Children's Hospital Foundation has secured pledges for more than 90 percent of the $100 million goal, Connors said. The remainder of the hospital's cost will be borrowed, he said.

Connors, 59, and his wife, Julie, a homemaker and volunteer, spent many years living in East Grand Rapids, but moved recently to Heritage Hill. Connors now happily walks to work. The couple's four offspring are Brian, 29, a specialist in Chinese studies and public policy planning; Ned, 25, a law school student; Ellen, 22, a professional bassoonist; and Bess, 19, a college student.

"We are enjoying living downtown," Connors said. HQ

BUILDING BLOCKS

Michigan’s children’s hospitals are planning more than $700 million of construction projects.

Hospital

Location

Project

Cost

Open Date

Bronson Methodist Children’s Services

Kalamazoo


Renovation of North
Pavilion, partially for perinatal and neonatal (Entire North Pavilion)

$38 million

April 2007


C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital

Ann Arbor

New inpatient hospital

$523 million

Spring 2011

Children’s Hospital of Michigan

Detroit

None

None

N/A

Sparrow Regional Children’s Center

Lansing



New 14-bed pediatrics emergency room


$5 million


December 2007


DeVos Children’s Hospital

Grand Rapids

New inpatient hospital

$250 million

December 2010

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