MIDDLEBURY — Helen Porter Health Care & Rehabilitation Center (HPH&R) will soon undergo around $850,000 in renovations that will make the facility better equipped to serve patients rehabbing from serious injuries and illnesses, as well as those who are in the final stages of their lives. The repairs, to begin as soon as next February, will involve a combined total of 11,300 square feet at HPH&R, a single-story building erected 25 years ago to serve as the county’s nursing home. But the evolution of health care — and a paradigm shift in patient care that emphasizes shorter hospital stays — has prompted Helen Porter to diversify its service portfolio. The center has taken on the added role of rehab center, a more lucrative endeavor offering recently discharged hospital patients the physical, speech and/or occupational therapies they need before they can return home for independent living.
“We already have a reputation for providing really good care; we now need facilities that match the skills of our providers,” said Ron Hallman, spokesman for University of Vermont Health Network-Porter Medical Center, which owns and operates Helen Porter.
The proposed HPH&R project will create:
• Five new patient rooms. Helen Porter already serves up to 105 patients.
• Two specially designed rooms for terminally ill patients, in collaboration with Addison Respite Care Home (ARCH), an organization specializing in end-of-life services. The project also calls for two family rooms for visits between ARCH residents and their loved ones.
• Some private rooms for patients. There are currently no such private rooms at HPH&R.
• Better flow to the Helen Porter gym, which would also be endowed with more storage space.
• More privacy for rooms in which patients receive therapy.
Porter Medical Center is currently putting together a five-year master plan for facility improvements. But PMC officials deemed the Helen Porter project so pressing that it is jumping to the head of the construction line. And PMC’s recent affiliation with UVM Health Network will help the organization raise the resources it will need to modernize its campus.
“We are building upon all of the great services we currently provide and leveraging the resources of the UVM Health Network to bring more specialty services to our region, improve care coordination and, most important, keep care local,” PMC President Dr. Fred Kniffin said of the impending campus improvements, which will include a new medical office building.
PMC officials are treating the upcoming Helen Porter renovations as two separate projects that will occur simultaneously.
New ARCH rooms
Porter has for more than a decade enjoyed a close relationship with ARCH. There are currently three ARCH rooms at Helen Porter and another — dubbed “The Estuary” — at Porter Hospital. Those rooms place terminally ill patients close to the services they need and provide a more home-like environment in which to live their final days in dignity, officials said.
Demand for ARCH rooms has been on the rise, reflective of Vermont’s aging population and the beauty and serenity the Green Mountain state offers its residents.
Porter and ARCH recently sent out a brochure touting the project, pegged at $300,000. Officials are hoping to raise $200,000 from the community to help pay down the costs.
Once the project is completed, all of the Helen Porter-based ARCH rooms will become centrally located within the horseshoe-shaped building. The current ARCH rooms are now based in the long-term care wing of the building.
Hallman acknowledged the several months of construction will impose a temporary hardship on Helen Porter residents and patients.
“The biggest challenge will be to ensure we provide great care to all the residents while we are doing a significant construction project,” Hallman said.
He noted the project contractor — Middlebury-based Bread Loaf Corp. — has experience with building projects in medical settings.
“I think we have a great team working on this,” he said.
Once completed, the new ARCH center should make Helen Porter an even more desirable destination for patients seeking to die with dignity, officials said. Porter Medical Center already has a well-respected palliative care program under the direction of Dr. Diana Barnard.
“We are trying to create as much of a home-like environment as possible,” Barnard said of the ARCH project. “We have people in our community dying with different illnesses in different kinds of ways. Having the options to have different choices for different families and situations is really important. And that’s what ARCH rooms at Helen Porter do. They provide an opportunity for people who can’t be at home.”
Rita Elder, a member of the ARCH board, said her organization has, for a long time, wanted to have a larger and more centrally located presence within Helen Porter.
“It’s good for this to be a priority for (Porter), too,” she said.
Laurie Borden is community coordinator for ARCH and program assistant for Middlebury-based Hospice Volunteer Services. She said a fortified presence of ARCH at Helen Porter will further serve to dispel the notion of dying as being an uncomfortable topic and something often done in isolation.
“Here, people feel less isolated,” Borden said. “When ARCH started, nobody wanted to talk about dying — especially that they were dying at Helen Porter or Porter Hospital. But they are. Now, we are bringing dying to the forefront, and it makes people feel less isolated. They feel cared for, and cared about.”
Rehabilitation center upgrades
Better care is also the goal behind the proposed rehabilitation center improvements at Helen Porter. Patients rehabbing from major medical procedures spend an average of 14 days at HPH&R, receiving many hours of therapy to allow them to return to independent living. Helen Porter has unfortunately had to turn away nine patients in recent weeks because it didn’t have the space to accommodate them, according to Doreen Kadric, director of rehabilitation services at HPH&R.
The project will modernize Helen Porter’s rehab services and separate them physically from the long-term (nursing home) care.
“We realize post-acute care is a huge service to the community, it is in demand, and it is its own special kind of care,” Hallman said. “We are now stepping back and saying, ‘How can we deliver that care in a setting that is designed for this purpose and has all of the attributes, facilities and equipment?’”
Kniffin said this current $850,000 project will be the first in a multi-phased effort to update HPH&R facilities.
Phase one is going to be a great first step, according to Borden.
“It’s a huge step for a small community,” she said.
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