When you walk into the new entrance of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital's emergency department, you feel a little like you've just stepped into a nice hotel lobby, with an open reception area, spacious waiting room and even an adjacent garden patio.

Gone are the drab, heavily windowed check-in stations that were akin to something you'd find at a county jail, an urban DMV office or a check-cashing outlet.

Instead of the old treatment stations separated by curtains you'll find private medical rooms with four walls and a door.

This week marked the completion of the first phase of the hospital's $15 million emergency department expansion and renovation — a project that will ultimately add 50 percent more space, more treatment rooms and larger trauma suites.

On Tuesday, the hospital began taking patients into the expanded section of its emergency department. With that phase of the project now complete, the hospital can now focus on an all-out renovation of the old emergency facilities.

The new emergency department strengthens Memorial Hospital's position in an increasingly competitive health care market. The facility is scheduled for completion next June, several months before Sutter Health is expected to open its new Santa Rosa medical center.

"From a business perspective, it helps us meet our existing demand of patients who choose to come to us to receive the excellent care we provide as well as prepare for future growth," said Todd Salnas, president of St. Joseph Health in Sonoma County, which owns and operates Memorial Hospital.

As the only level II trauma center in the North Coast, Memorial's emergency department treats the region's most critically ill and injured patients. An average of 100 patients a day, or 38,925 a year, are treated here.

The first phase of the project has added 4,228 square feet of space to the existing 9,280-square-foot facility. Six new private treatment rooms were added and are now open.

Eventually, the old facility's 19 treatment bays will be replaced by 26 private rooms. There will also be two trauma and critical care suites, each housing two beds for a total of four specialized beds.

Earlier this week, hospital staff began moving beds from the existing facility to the expanded portion. Construction staff can now begin renovation of trauma suites, nurses stations and treatment bays in the old facility.

The next phase of work will now be conducted amid a fully operating emergency department.

"It's like rebuilding an airplane in mid flight," said Gary McCalla, medical director of emergency medicine at Memorial Hospital

McCalla said the new expanded portion will increase efficiencies in the department.

"It will make it easier to keep patients moving through the department.

In addition to the private treatment rooms, the new features available this week include:

— An enlarged waiting and registration/reception area with enough seating for 60 people.

— More space for private consultations with patient families.

— A furnished outdoor patio and garden for family members and patients who use the waiting area.

(You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.)