Cancer center set to expand

Hopkins consolidating scattered facilities in two modern buildings

Advances in care, research

October 24, 1999|By Jonathan Bor and Diana Sugg | Jonathan Bor and Diana Sugg,SUN STAFF

The Johns Hopkins Cancer Center will soon leave its cramped, outdated quarters for a pair of spacious buildings that are designed for a new era of cancer research and treatment.

Standing on opposite sides of North Broadway, the $125 million clinical center and $59 million research building will open at a time of mounting competition among hospitals and explosive growth in scientists' understanding of the disease.

The nine-story clinical tower, with 132 patient beds and room for hundreds of outpatients, will be formally dedicated tomorrow at ceremonies in its tall, airy atrium. It will open to patients in January. In December, scientists will begin setting up laboratories in the 10-story research building, which has room for more than 400 researchers.

"The medical and scientific advances have had us bursting at the seams," said Dr. Martin Abeloff, director of the cancer center. "This is an opportunity to introduce all sorts of new treatments and respond to the demands imposed by this very fierce disease we call cancer."

Although Hopkins is one of the most advanced cancer centers in the nation, receiving the third-highest amount of federal funding, doctors and nurses say their facilities became outmoded soon after they opened in 1977.

Scientists in cramped laboratories are careful not to jostle each other while carrying delicate specimens. Tiles in a research building that was once a grocery store come unglued because the floor is saturated with animal fat. Patients have been known to stand in hallways or sit on the floor before appointments.

"I have no idea what the new building will be like, but anything will be an improvement," said Bettye Balland Griffin, who has kidney cancer. The White Marsh woman said the existing center's dingy walls and cramped rooms make patients who are ill and anxious feel worse.

Though the cancer center occupies a four-story building off the main hospital lobby, laboratories and patient rooms are also scattered across the sprawling medical campus in East Baltimore. With the opening of the new center, activities will be concentrated in the two buildings.

They are named the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building and the Bunting-Blaustein Cancer Research Building, in recognition of foundations that made large donations.

Patients and scientists

The new center, which also received $45 million in state funding, should ease the stress on patients who are now herded from one building to another for different services.

Also, by concentrating scientists under one roof, the research center should provide more opportunities for discussions -- both planned and accidental -- that stimulate ideas.

"It might sound trivial, but it's not," said Dr. Bert Vogelstein, who runs a cancer genetics laboratory. "If you're seeing someone in the hall, the chances for productive interactions just multiply."

The buildings were planned with the help of nurses, doctors and scientists.

For the clinical center, nurses insisted on privacy curtains that could be drawn around beds, though all the rooms are private. In the research building, labs were designed to suit the preferences of scientists who run them. One researcher likes to have his staff of 25 people work in a large open lab; another likes his staff divided among several laboratories.

While there will be more room for patients, the new clinical center will open with one fewer bed, a reflection of the shift to outpatient care. The number of hospital beds could decline in years to come.

The hospital already treats some of its bone marrow transplant patients on an outpatient basis and has designed the clinical center with contiguous wings for inpatients and outpatients. The building was designed so that inpatient rooms can be converted into clinic space as the practice is more widely embraced.

It is one of many features recommended by Gina Szymanski, a nurse manager who was brought into the planning process four years ago but who says she has been imagining new layouts since she came to Hopkins.

"For me, the gestation has been going on for 18 years," she said.

Decades of change

Large centers devoted to cancer are a relatively new phenomenon. "When I was training in Boston in the late 1960s, the idea of a coordinated, comprehensive cancer center wasn't a glimmer in anyone's mind," said Abeloff. "For most people, if you had cancer, you were ashamed to talk about it."

The words weren't used. Physicians just avoided it, and getting multitudes of specialists together was very difficult."

In the years after Hopkins built its first oncology center, cancer became "something that truly came out of the closet," he said, and the demand for treatment exploded. The ability to diagnose cancers early also meant patients were getting therapy more readily.

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