HARTFORD — In the 1980s, the idea of operating on an unborn child in a mother’s womb was so cutting edge, it seemed almost like the stuff of science fiction.
Now — well into the 21st century as surgical technology has developed — Connecticut Children’s is planning to expand beyond its pediatric care roots into services for expectant mothers whose babies may need surgery before they are born.
Hartford-based Connecticut Children’s vision, which could raise its profile nationally and draw more patients, is at the heart of a proposed $280 million expansion that would double the size of its 25-year-old campus off Washington Street.
The hospital also seeks to build on its specialized treatments for rare bone diseases, adding advanced cellular and gene therapy to provide cancer-saving treatment for its pediatric patients.
The expansion plans are in the early stages and still must win state approval. If all approvals were secured, the hospital hopes construction would begin in the spring with completion by the end of 2025.
But Connecticut Children’s has already hired a physician who is a pioneer in “in-utero” surgery who will start building the program. The hospital declined to name the physician, saying an announcement would be made soon.
“So, it’s a very niche program that you don’t find in very many areas across the country,” Ryan Calhoun, vice president of strategy and care integration at the hospital, said. “A lot of them are heart conditions you will see picked up during the ultrasound and the fetal echo cardiogram.”
The planned fetal center will determine what procedure can be performed to improve the rate of survival.
“Because that’s what it is all about,” Calhoun said. “The outcomes that we are looking to have for this new center is really going to separate us, and that’s what we are excited about.”
Commitment to Hartford
In Connecticut, just one other hospital — Yale New Haven — offers surgery inside the womb, Connecticut Children’s said.
The proposal for a “fetal care center” at Connecticut Children’s comes as hospitals increasingly seek to differentiate themselves with specialized services that can draw — and capture — regional or national attention.
A higher profile means not only more patients but medical professionals who will want to work at the hospital, providing a broader economic boost. The hospital said the expansion also sends a strong signal that it is committed to Hartford.
The move also comes as hospitals seek to shift more routine procedures to satellite locations, reserving their flagship locations for specialized procedures and research.
Connecticut Children’s has long provided neo-natal intensive care services at locations within Hartford Hospital and the University of Connecticut Health Center. Those units, known by their acronym, NICU, are located at other hospitals because that is where the mothers give birth.
Connecticut Children’s now envisions mothers with higher-risk pregnancies connected to the fetal care center will give birth at its hospital. Children born in the program often have lengthy hospital stays following birth.
“They can be here for a very long time,” Calhoun said.
The expansion plans include the addition of 50 private rooms that would be shared by parents with their newborns resting in incubators. Traditionally, NICUs have been arranged in a “community” configuration, but private rooms are now state-of-the-art, Calhoun said.
‘We have just made it work’
Connecticut Children’s was considering an expansion even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 put those plans on hold.
The hospital’s campus had long become cramped. Hundreds of its corporate employees in finance, human resources, the hospital’s foundation, marketing, communications have been relocated downtown to Hartford Square North on Columbus Boulevard, often referred to as the “Candy Cane” building.
Connecticut Children’s now employs nearly 2,600 in the city, but that doesn’t include satellite locations in the Hartford suburbs and Fairfield County.
The planned 8-story addition totaling about 190,000 square feet would be built on the hospital’s front lawn facing Washington Street. The addition would be financed by debt and a fundraising campaign through the hospital’s foundation.
The proposal calls for a new main entrance lobby that would face an existing parking garage shared by Connecticut Children’s and nearby Hartford Hospital.
In addition to the 50 NICU rooms, there will be two operating rooms, and 12 beds reserved for children’s psychiatric care may be relocated to the new addition. The hospital now has 189 beds.
There also will be more space for an expanded kitchen. The existing kitchen, intended only for use to cater events, now also cooks for patients and the public using the adjoining cafeteria.
On a recent afternoon, the kitchen’s production manager, Scott Caffrey, said he’s been at the hospital 21 years and the space has been tight for a long time.
“I feel like the offerings could be better if we had more space,” Caffrey said, noting that the majority of what is served is cook-to-order, little being pre-packaged.
Caffrey remembers cooking 100 prime rib holiday dinners in just one “double-stack” industrial oven.
“I think we have just made it work,” Caffrey said.
Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at email@example.com.