Police cruisers escorted more than a dozen ambulances from Walter Reed Army Medical Center to National Naval Medical Center early Sunday morning as part of a trial run for when real patients must move to their new hospital home at the end of summer.
Officials at both medical centers were on hand Sunday to analyze the efficiency of the 18 simulated patient moves in preparation for the closure of Walter Reed as part of the federal government’s Base Realignment and Closure project.
“I think it went great,” said Col. Van Coots, Walter Reed Health Care System commander. “We have planned this move down to very, very small details, and today gave us the opportunity to really flesh out those details. We’re a military organization, and this is what military organizations do we plan and then we execute. I think we’ll have a very successful patient move at the end of August.”
Over the course of two hours starting at 7 a.m. Sunday morning, employees at Walter Reed manned a movement control center, taking information from employees and volunteers posing as patients and boarding them on ambulances bound for Navy Medical.
In Bethesda, teams of employees wearing color-coded vests stood at receiving control centers outside hospital entrances and waited for the ambulances to arrive. As the patients were pulled one by one from the ambulances onto stretchers, their conditions were quickly reviewed before they were wheeled to pre-determined hospital rooms. Separate volunteers rushed to the cabs of the ambulances to greet family members and take them to waiting areas.
During the exercise, the volunteers dealt with such curve balls as a patient whose condition had deteriorated during the ride and a mother who did not speak any English.
Col. John Gaal, deputy commander for administration at Walter Reed, was one of the simulated patients in the exercise.
“I was so impressed with the nursing staff, those in the ambulance and the staff here,” Gaal said after his 5.4 mile ride to Bethesda. “I was comfortable, everyone here welcomed me, and I knew what was happening every step of the way.”
The exercise was months in the making, said Chris Gillette, Navy Medical’s patient move director. For the past nine months, representatives from both hospitals have been meeting in conference rooms to plan the move down to the minute, Gillette said.
Coots said there were a few hiccups along the way that need to be fixed: One of the last ambulances to arrive at Navy Medical approached the intake station without any warning or radio communication, and Coots wants to rearrange how ambulances will line up and leave Walter Reed before moving day.
Sunday’s exercise started at 4 a.m. In August, the first patients will start moving around 2 a.m. More than 500 people, not including those already stationed at Navy Medical, will be involved in the move, Gillette said. Officials expect to move between 75 and 150 patients that day, with patients departing Walter Reed every three minutes or so.
Gillette said officials were considering one of three routes from Walter Reed to Navy Medical and tested the shortest, 5.4 miles, on Sunday. Other dry runs will be scheduled to test the remaining two routes, he said.
Sunday’s exercise brought home the significance of the Walter Reed closure for Coots. He’s already set the schedule for the hospital’s final day. In the early morning, a prayer and statements from Coots will be broadcast over the campus loud speakers. At the end of the day, a final ceremony will be held.
“We’ll bring the national colors and the hospital flag down for the last time, and that effectively will close Walter Reed,” he said.
Staff moves from Walter Reed will start in early August, said Capt. David Bitonti, chief of staff for integration and transition at National Naval Medical Center. A third of the staff will start new jobs at Ft. Belvoir Community Hospital, while two thirds will move to the new Bethesda hospital.
Coots remained positive about the merger.
“I think this is the most monumental move in the history of the military health system. You’re combining the flagship of Navy medicine and the flagship of Army medicine together under the name Walter Reed, which is a brand name, which is the name known around the world that stands for excellence in military medicine,” Coots said. “When you put all of this together, I like to say you are creating the biggest and baddest military medical center in the world.”