The long-awaited opening of two new operating rooms at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center will boost the capacity and technological capabilities of surgical services at the Bellingham hospital.

In addition to a ninth traditionally sized operating room (OR), PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s is now home to a hybrid OR that integrates advanced imaging technology previously unavailable inside an operating room. Together, these two ORs will increase the hospital’s surgical capacity by an average of six to eight more procedures a day.

The new hybrid operating room at Bellingham’s PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center integrates advanced imaging with state-of-the-art surgical technologies. Photo credit: Matt Benoit

A plan to add additional ORs at PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s was hatched around 2006, but really kicked off in 2017, says Karla Ramusack, the hospital’s nursing director for surgery administration. Unsurprisingly, construction completion of the ORs was significantly delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the initial plan considered just one new operating room, community growth led to re-consideration and a decision that two would best support an increase in future surgical demand. The two-room expansion will help alleviate surgical backlogs still settling after the pandemic, while also keeping patients closer to home for more advanced surgical care.

Expanding Horizons

Vascular surgeon Michelle Sohn has been involved with the OR project since being hired at PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s in 2007. She says the hybrid OR is a huge benefit for both medical staff and patients.

The hybrid OR includes a control room with leaded glass for radiation shielding when imaging technology requires precautions. Photo credit: Matt Benoit

“With the advanced technologies, we’re basically able to offer patients much less invasive procedures,” she says. “Patients can receive complex aortic repair through two tiny holes in your skin. If you think about the extreme advances in technology and imaging that we have now, it’s a bit mind-blowing.”

Previously, patients were either treated in the nearby catheterization lab or in a standard operating room with a portable imaging system.  With the new hybrid OR, both open surgical and advanced imaging procedures can be performed in the same setting. The combination of in-room advanced imaging and increase in minimally invasive procedures can mean shorter surgery and recovery times for a patient.

An alcove inside the second new operating room provides a storage area for one of the hospital’s robotically assisted surgical machines. Photo courtesy PeaceHealth

The hybrid OR is also capable of taking three-dimensional computed tomography (CT) scans while a patient is still in surgery. “You can have an immediate image to show you what that result [of surgical intervention] is,” says Dr. Sohn.

Though the new hybrid OR is currently seeing only vascular and electrophysiology (EP) procedures, it has the ability to expand to numerous surgical specialties in the future,” says Billy Felten, PeaceHealth business manager for surgical services.

“We want to ensure we can perform any surgery, at any time, as efficiently as possible,” he says. “While the room is excellent for vascular procedures with the advanced imaging, we can also perform any other life-saving procedure that we need to perform.”

A view of the control panel for the surgical table inside the new hybrid OR. Photo credit: Matt Benoit

The hybrid OR is larger than PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s traditional ORs and features an imaging control room with leaded glass to protect from radiation imaging. Screens that act as visual and imaging aids for surgeons are also larger in this room, allowing multiple images to be projected on a screen and integrating other technologies such as ultrasound. While a technician would usually need to control these screens, the hybrid OR allows a surgeon like Dr. Sohn to control the screens themselves.

Even the non-hybrid OR room has technological improvements, including an alcove for storing one of the hospital’s da Vinci robotically assisted surgical machines. Fiber optic cabling for the machine is run through the ceiling instead of along the floor, allowing for better ease of movement.

PeaceHealth employees who made the new hybrid OR a reality include, from left to right: Vascular Surgeon Dr. Michelle Sohn, Vascular Coordinator Jerimiah Thornton, Nursing Director for Surgery Administration Karla Ramusack, Clinical Nurse Educator Lara Goolsby, and Surgical Services Business Manager Billy Felten. Photo credit: Matt Benoit

The new hybrid OR will be open sometime in March, while the new traditional OR is already seeing patients. All in all, it means a better level of surgical care for PeaceHealth patients in the Whatcom County area.

“We have the most advanced imaging capabilities available in a modern operating room setting,” says Dr. Sohn.


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