Doors opened at the new Emergency Room at the Sonoma Valley Hospital in Sonoma, on Tuesday, February 11, 2014. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

PD Editorial: The triumph of Sonoma's hospital wing

To borrow from a Mark Twain phrase about California, in Sonoma County, wine is for drinking, water is for conserving - and hospitals are for fighting.

But at least the latter is no longer true in Sonoma Valley.

Sonoma residents on Tuesday celebrated the unveiling of Sonoma Valley Hospital's new $43.8 million wing, which includes a new emergency department and a new surgical center.

The opening marks the completion of a major overhaul and expansion that began with local approval of a bond measure in 2008.

The new emergency room is three times larger than the old department and includes seven private treatment rooms and two beds for severely ill patients. The second-floor surgery center is one-fifth larger than its predecessor.

But this was more than a celebration of bricks and mortar. This was the triumph of a communitywide effort to address a major need - a need for an upgraded and expanded community hospital - and address it in a way that didn't require eminent domain or the pitting of neighbor against neighbor.

Tuesday's celebratory opening was a welcome departure from past community engagements over the hospital, which at one time was threatened with closure due to seismic safety issues. The battles over the hospital's future also came at a time when the district was losing as much as $1.8 million a year.

But locals had a hard time coming together on a solution. A ballot measure in 2006 that called for using the power of eminent domain to seize 16 acres of farmland to build a new $148 million, 70-bed hospital created deep divisions.

Although that plan was soundly defeated at the polls, it was followed by another proposal that called for building a smaller, less expensive hospital on the southern end of the city. But that plan also died after drawing opposition from local environmentalists who were opposed to stretching the community's urban growth boundary.

At that point, some feared it would spell the end of the hospital. But wiser and cooler minds prevailed. Community leaders came back in 2008 with Measure P, which asked voters to authorize $35 million in bonds for upgrades to the existing 83-bed facility and included steps to modernize and provide seismic upgrades to the hospital's west wing. The measure, which passed with 80 percent of the vote, also allowed the hospital district to refinance existing debt.

The measure covered $31 million of the project's costs. Another $11.3 million came from a community capital campaign.

Given the hospital's other capital needs, the shifting stands of the health care industry and the multiple financial challenges facing hospitals of all sizes, this is clearly not the final chapter in the effort to ensure the hospital remains in good health. But at least, for now, the community is on the same page.

Hospital CEO Kelly Mather said it best when she noted, "It's a healing hospital now. We've healed, and now we're going to inspire healing."

It was worth the wait.

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