Small Sonoma Co. hospital rallies to reverse closure amid rural hospital crisis

SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. (KTVU) - At a time when rural hospitals nationwide are failing at an alarming rate, a Sonoma County community has rallied to reverse the closure of its 70 year old facility.

Sebastopol's Palm Drive Hospital will soon reopen as Sonoma West Medical Center, a rebirth many thought was a pipe dream.

"If I was a betting man, I wouldn't have taken the bet," Police Chief Jeff Weaver told KTVU, outside the doors where "Closed" signs went up in April of 2014, and staff was sent home a final time.

"They kind of linked their arms, broke down in tears, and walked out the door," recalled Weaver, "it was tough, it was very hard."

Sebastopol has a population of 8,000. The West Sonoma County region, stretching to the coast and the Russian River area, encompasses 50,000, so it does not fall into the federal definition of a rural hospital.

But Palm Drive shared many of the same maladies identified in an Associated Press review of rural hospital data: inefficient, underutilized, and broke.

The AP analysis shows more rural hospitals have closed during the past two years, than during the past decade. Two of those were in California and ten more are vulnerable. For people who live in rural America, the crisis can be one of life and death."It's an epidemic, these small hospitals failing," acknowledged Dr. Rodney Look, new Chief of Emergency Services for Sonoma West. He describes the drive to revive Sebastopol's facility as a grassroots movement, fueled by many stories of delayed care as patients had to travel to the nearest hospitals in Santa Rosa, thirty minutes to an hour away, depending on traffic.


"Gosh if Palm Drive had just been open," Look recounted," it would have saved us that extra half hour to get to an Emergency Department, then perhaps my husband, my dad, my son, would have lived."

Sonoma West opens with a new board of directors and new business plan.

It hopes to establish a reputation as an elite facility that patients outside Sebastopol will seek out.

One promise: a "no wait emergency room."

On arrival, a patient would go directly to an E-R- bed for evaluation by a doctor, nurse and technician simultaneously, instead of the staggered check-in procedure dreaded in traditional hospitals.

"People expect an emergency room that is quick, efficient, and nice," explained Dr. Look, "so that's what we want to do here."

Technology has been upgraded, with tele-medicine monitors in very room for conferencing with offsite doctors.

A $150,000 robot will also cruise the halls, functioning as a high-tech hospitalist, providing vital bedside information to specialists. Doctor Robot will also keep staffing costs down.

"We want to be thought of as a mini Mayo Clinic," enthused new CEO of Sonoma West, Raymond Hino. "You couldn't do this in small town Iowa or small town Texas."

Palm Drive's rebirth is an anomaly, explained Hino, because unlike many isolated, neglected hospitals, West Sonoma County is a desirable place for doctors to live and work. Plus, there's enough affluence in the area that residents are willing and able to donate to their community hospital.

Hino predicts one year of debt, then break-even or better, after that.

"Had it been run more efficiently, I believe it could have avoided closing in the first place," added Hino.

All rooms in the refurbished hospital are private, and equipped with fold out chairs so families can stay with patients.

A cafe, not cafeteria, will provide room service, headed by a local chef, who is developing menus intended to compete with local restaurants.

Going to the hospital for lunch? "We're going to turn that from a joke to reality," assured Medical Director Dr. James Gude, "this is going to be a very nice place to dine!"

"It's entrepreneurial but it's based on the needs of the West county Citizens,

"Gude declared, "there's a lot of entrepreneurship in this area."

For the Police Chief, there is no substitute for a local hospital, especially when injured victims of auto accidents or assaults need follow-up with officers.

"We only have two police officers on most of the time," noted Chief Weaver, "so we're not in a position to send half the police force to a hospital that's seven or eight miles away."

Sonoma West Medical Center is slated to reopen in mid-May.