When Dr. Sitaram Emani, a cardiac surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, heard about the baby from Springfield with the failing heart, he knew he could help.
But Emani quickly realized there was no room for the boy at the overcrowded hospital. Under sedation, the boy waited for weeks until Emani could fix the holes in his heart.
It’s a story that doctors and executives at Children’s, the region’s dominant pediatric care center, tell again and again: They don’t have enough beds, surgeries are being delayed, patients are being turned away and sent to other hospitals. And it’s why executives say they need to complete a $1 billion expansion of their Longwood Medical Area campus, a project that would create an 11-story tower with more room for doctors and nurses to treat more patients.
Yet the hospital’s message has been undercut recently by a group opposed to the proposal for reasons that have nothing to do with surgeries or beds. They object to the plan to build the tower over the Prouty Garden, a tranquil refuge for countless sick and dying children and their families. And many have emotional stories to tell.
“The hospital is out of touch. I don’t think they totally see what they’re going to lose,” said Beecher Grogan, whose daughter, Lucy, liked to wiggle her toes in garden’s grass before she died from leukemia at age 12.
“They should absolutely build a building,” Grogan said, “but anywhere but there.”
The group Friends of the Prouty Garden, a group backed by an anonymous donor, has raised enough money to take out full-page ads in the Globe and hire a lawyer and public relations firm. Its online petition to preserve the garden has nearly 14,000 signatures, and it has the backing of some prominent physicians, such as Dr. T. Berry Brazelton.
Hospital executives may have been caught off guard by the backlash, but now they’re trying to defend their case. They say they examined at least nine scenarios before settling on the plan to build over the Prouty Garden. All of the other options were too costly, would take too long to build, or would be too far from the hospital’s other facilities, resulting in inefficiencies and higher costs, they say.
“We looked at the cost-effectiveness, we looked at the time it would take, we looked at what it would bring us in terms of patient care,” said Dr. Kevin Churchwell, the chief operating officer at Children’s. “When we put it all on the grid, the building that we’re going to build really fit the best.”
The debate will play out at a public hearing Thursday afternoon before the Department of Public Health. State regulators are reviewing whether the hospital’s proposed expansion is appropriate, as they do with all major capital projects. They have also asked Children’s, one of the state’s priciest hospitals, to pay for an independent study that shows what effect the project will have on health care costs.
To soften the blow of eliminating the Prouty Garden, executives are planning to build three green spaces into their expanded campus: a rooftop garden, an outdoor garden, and indoor gardens that can survive the winter and bring a little peace to children too sick to go outside.
Rising patient numbers — not just from Massachusetts, but from other states and countries where Children’s is seeking growth — have made the hospital a crowded place. And the numbers continue to grow as Children’s cements its reputation as a place for treating the world’s smallest and sickest patients. The hospital admitted more than 24,349 patients in the year ended Sept. 30, up 1.8 percent from the previous year.
All but four of the hospital’s 404 beds were full on Wednesday, and 50 children were being treated in the emergency room. In the neonatal intensive care unit, tiny babies slept in cribs crammed into a small room, surrounded by supply cabinets, as clinicians and family members shuffled by. Parents who wanted privacy with their sick newborns were out of luck.
Children’s executives say the expansion project, the largest proposed by a Massachusetts hospital, will change all of this. It will add dozens of beds and eliminate room-sharing, an inconvenience that also puts patients at greater risk of catching infections. In the new space, each patient — even newborns — will have a private room.
“It’s not just adding beds,” chief executive Sandra L. Fenwick said. “It’s adding the right kind of space, the right technology, the right environment.”
In addition to building the tower in Longwood, hospital officials are planning to renovate existing buildings, construct an outpatient building in Brookline, and add inpatient hospital beds to a facility in Waltham.
In total, the project is pegged at $1.5 billion and is scheduled to take five years to complete.
Prouty Garden supporters say the hospital doesn’t have to choose between the garden and the expansion project.
The half-acre garden is the “soul” of the hospital, they say, a place that provides the kind of healing that’s not possible within hospital walls.
Children’s executives don’t buy that description. On a hospital building next to the Prouty Garden, a sign taped to a door says: “The soul of Boston Children’s Hospital is our people and our children.”
“With growth,” the sign reads, “we will have a greater capacity to heal.”