Imagine what Bellingham was like in 1890, when members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace congregation moved from Newark, New Jersey, to Fairhaven to found a hospital for loggers and miners. Today, we know that local hospital as PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, a 242-bed facility on Squalicum Parkway that offers, among other services, cardiology, oncology, orthopedics, maternity and prenatal care, general surgery and outpatient imaging.
PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center is part of PeaceHealth, a not-for-profit system headquartered in Vancouver, Washington, that owns and operates 10 hospitals and numerous clinics in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Most recently, PeaceHealth announced a partnership between PeaceHealth St. Joe’s here, as it’s colloquially known, and Seattle Children’s Hospital, to expand the care of premature newborns.
In early 2022, PeaceHealth St. Joe’s received an extraordinary gift of $50 million from Peter H. Paulsen, a real estate developer and philanthropist known locally for developing the Hotel Bellwether on the marina in Bellingham.
Paulsen, who now lives in Arizona, has said he thought about the thousands of people that a hospital expansion would help in the coming years. He particularly liked the idea of an expanded birth and family center.
Charles Prosper of PeaceHealth, whose title is chief executive of the Northwest network, oversees hospital operations in Bellingham, Sedro-Woolley, Friday Harbor and Ketchikan, Alaska. Prosper speaks to the impact of Paulsen’s donation, the biggest single gift PeaceHealth has ever received. (Answers have been edited.)
Q: Paulsen’s gift has been called “transformational.” What does it mean for Bellingham and Whatcom County?
A: This extraordinary gift will help secure the future of high-quality health care for Whatcom County and northwest Washington. It comes at a time when the availability of health care has never been more important, and when growth in the region has underscored the need for increased capacity and compassionate, innovative care.
Q: This gift is substantial enough to be of national importance. Any metrics on that?
A: The Chronicle of Philanthropy ranks Mr. Paulsen’s gift as No. 7 in 2022 for individuals who have given $1 million-plus gifts to health organizations or causes and No. 34 overall (out of all industries and causes) for 2022.
PeaceHealth benefits from the generosity of many people in our community and has received many large gifts since the founding of the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center Foundation in 2003. Although Mr. Paulsen’s single gift stands alone in its impact and magnitude, he joins other area donors who have contributed more than $105 million in the past 10 years to help improve the lives of those in our area.
Q. PeaceHealth St. Joseph is currently 510,780 square feet. How big will it be after the Peter Paulsen Pavilion is built?
A: The new pavilion is 120,000 square feet, so the total square feet of the main medical center will be in excess of 620,000.
Q. Describe the addition.
A: The plan better aligns with current health care trends, including a growing desire for single-patient rooms, higher capacity needs highlighted by the pandemic, and a move to more outpatient surgery. This is accomplished through a strategic mix of building expansion, remodel of existing buildings and new construction. The first phase of new development would add up to 112 beds for patient care, expand the emergency department and create a new, state-of-the-art childbirth center with neonatal intensive care unit. The near-term benefits to our region would be utilized by generations to come.
Q. Your current inpatient capacity in Bellingham is 242 beds. Has that changed since 2019?
A: Not substantially, but a small number of beds were added since COVID. Additional areas were modified to temporarily accommodate the surge in COVID patients.
Q. The Peter Paulsen Pavilion will include a rooftop helipad, replacing the current ground location behind the hospital. What will that mean for patients?
A: In these situations, time is critical. The proposed rooftop helipad is critical for expediting the care of patients who come to the hospital because of emergency or life-threatening events. When minutes matter most, the rooftop helipad would allow immediate access to our hospital. Currently, patients need to be transported by ambulance from the helicopter pad to the emergency room. The rooftop helipad would also free up emergency medical services and ambulances to respond to other community calls.
Q. Bellingham is now 93,910 people, up from 80,000 in 2010. Whatcom County is 232,000, up from 201,000 in 2010. What’s your average inpatient capacity?
A: PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center is a busy hospital. We operate at approximately 90% capacity every day.
Q. What capacity do you project for the next two, five, 10 years?
A: As the community grows and health care demand grows with it, we expect that the expanded inpatient beds and enlarged emergency department will meet the community’s growing needs.
Q: Why do you think people move to Bellingham/Whatcom County?
A: It’s beautiful, livable, enjoys relatively mild weather, and has excellent facilities in nearly every category, including health care!
Q: Do you foresee a larger proportion of retirees moving here?
A: Yes, for the reasons noted above.
Q: How does the homeless population affect the emergency department?
A: Our emergency department is very busy every day serving the urgent/emergent needs of the entire community across the demographic and socioeconomic spectrum, including those who are unhoused. Recognizing that some populations require a broader spectrum of services, we partner with several community partners to assist with issues such as food, housing, post-hospital care, etc.
Q: Can you speak to illegal drug use and its effect on the emergency or other departments?
A: Drug and alcohol use and abuse is related to approximately 10% to 12% of hospital admissions (including the emergency department) nationwide. Statistics for PeaceHealth St. Joseph are in line with these national statistics.
Q: How do you attract a workforce in this challenging housing environment?
A: We devote a great deal of attention to attracting and retaining employees, and we offer geographically competitive wages and benefits to help offset the high costs of living here. We proudly have supported the Bellingham Home Fund, which, through a property tax levy, has helped create affordable homes for seniors, veterans, people with disabilities and working families.
Business Pulse: Today, we in Bellingham and Whatcom County can barely imagine what our area was like when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace arrived in 1890. No doubt those founders would be much more astonished at what their little hospital for loggers and miners has become.