Proudly dressed in an American flag T-shirt, head held high, Randy Clukey rolled his wheelchair into the new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown early Saturday morning and raised his right fist in triumph.
Clukey was celebrating his status as the first patient of 112 who were transported to the hospital’s glistening $225 million waterfront building as part of an intensively planned operation.
The moment was also a personal milestone: Just weeks earlier, Clukey was barely able to move his arm at all, much less lift it over his head. A snowmobile accident in early February broke eight ribs and punctured a lung; a subsequent stroke left the 53-year-old builder and avid outdoorsman from Maine with significant muscle weakness in the right side of his body.
Ever the competitive athlete — doctors once had to confiscate an unsanctioned barbell he tried to sneak in and use to work out — Clukey waged a campaign among the hospital’s staff to ensure that he would be the first in.
“I’ve been asking for three weeks to be the first one,” he said with a wry smile. “I thought it’d be interesting to be part of the history of the place.”
Even after his van left Spaulding’s former location on Nashua Street at the front of a caravan of ambulances, Clukey craned his neck to see out the window.
“Don’t let the other van pass us,” he said, scanning the road anxiously.
Spaulding administrators said they left little to chance when it came to planning the institution’s historic move.
“Everyone knows their mission,” said project coordinator Kevin Love, who worked for months and drew on his experience as an Army reservist who served two tours in Iraq to conceive of a comprehensive plan. “At the end of the day, if all our patients are safe and comfortable in their beds, we’ve succeeded.”
Among the patients transferred Saturday were at least seven victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.
The president of Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, David Storto, who ran in the Marathon along with other Spaulding employees and members of his family, said hospital staff were deeply saddened by the attack, but glad to have a way to help.
“It’s a tragedy, what occurred for that group,” Storto said. “But it’s a blessing that we’re here. We want to do well by them. We want them to achieve a quality of life they can’t even contemplate at this point.”
Sorto hopes the spotlight on Marathon victims will extend to other Spaulding patients, some of whom have similar injuries from other incidents.
“Every day, we see car accidents, strokes, other things that don’t get the same attention,” he said. “I hope that some of that energy will extend to those people with ordinary lives who are experiencing their own onset of disability in ways that aren’t as public.”
While Spaulding is carefully guarding the privacy of the Marathon patients, Sorto hinted that he hoped to eventually recruit some to participate in next year’s Marathon.
Staff members who worked on Saturday’s move wore color-coded shirts to indicate their roles, with greeters swarming each arriving patient, checking their vitals, and hustling them off to the appropriate floor. A conference room on the ground floor of the new Charlestown building served as mission control, with a projector showing the status of each patient in real time.
Mayor Thomas Menino, himself a former Spaulding patient, dropped by Saturday afternoon to tour the building and meet with patients.
The state-of-the-art facility, built starting in 2010 after a recession-related delay, is a significant upgrade over the Spaulding’s Nashua Street building, which opened in 1970 and was originally intended to be a nursing home.
“The rooms were small, the bathrooms weren’t accessible, the hallways were narrow, the ceilings were low. It was basically a pretty crummy facility,” Storto said. “It’s remarkable that Spaulding achieved all it did and patients have been as satisfied as they have been.”
The new hospital, built on the site of the former Charlestown Navy Yard, is designed throughout to make life easier for patients with various disabilities. The facility includes modifications like lower counters at nurses stations so patients in wheelchairs don’t have to strain, private rooms for each patient that better accommodate visiting family members, and evenly spaced rectangles on the floor that let patients measure how far they can walk.
“Traditionally, rehab has always been relegated to whatever rundown space existed in the corner of the hospital,” Storto said. “I have wanted this [building] to be a bold statement for the rehab field, for people with disabilities and their families.”
Patients and doctors at Spaulding praised their new digs, noting that the environment becomes an important factor during long rehabilitation stays meant to improve patients’ overall quality of life.
“You can’t beat that sunrise,” Clukey said, gazing out a window overlooking Boston Harbor. “And it’s much nicer having your own bathroom.”
Despite being satisfied with the new building, several patients said that Spaulding’s best asset isn’t a building, but the doctors, nurses, and physical therapists who they say provided world-class care despite working in less-than-ideal circumstances.
“This new facility is great, but it’s the people that make it invaluable,” said Todd Hicks, 56. a school headmaster from Montana who is recovering at Spaulding after having a brain tumor removed. “They’re the real richness of this place.”
Hicks said he closely followed the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the manhunt for the two suspects from his hospital bed.
For Storto, Saturday’s move was a chance to step back and reflect after months of meticulous planning and the dramatic events of the past two weeks.
“I came here this morning and I just cried,” he said. “I cried with pleasure and pride. I was so happy for all of our current and future patients and I was so proud of our staff. . . . it’s just remarkable.”