BURRILLVILLE – State health officials discussed plans for the future of the Burrillville unit of Eleanor Slater Hospital at a community meeting this week, assuring locals that space will remain for the facility’s current residents, while more beds will ultimately be added for new patients in need of long-term, acute care.
It was the first of what will be several gatherings regarding the state’s planned $100 million investment in the Zambarano campus, according to Director of Rhode Island’s Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities & Hospitals Richard Charest, giving members of the public a chance to ask questions, and weigh in with their concerns and vision for the facility.
“We’re very, very early on in the process,” Charest said Wednesday, Feb. 22 at a meeting in the campus’s 85-year-old Beazley building.
Built in the 1900s as a sanatorium to house patients with tuberculosis, Zambarano is now a division of the state-run Eleanor Slater Hospital, which also includes a campus in Cranston. In more recent years, the Burrillville hospital has become something of a permanent home to patients with complex and demanding medical and psychiatric issues in need of constant care.
“Over the years, we sort of morphed into a facility that continues to care for patients with higher needs,” Charest explained.
For those now living at Zambarano, that care will continue, Charest said, while new beds are added for long-term acute care patients. Services offered, he noted, will be different from in-patient rehabilitation and skilled nursing facilities, with a specialty of treating patients with more than one condition, but who are expected to return home after an average stay of more than 25 days.
Currently, said Brett Johnson, chief executive officer for Eleanor Slater, there is a shortage of such services in the state.
“A lot are leaving the state of Rhode Island to receive care in New York and Connecticut,” Johnson said.
Faulkner Consulting Group is now conducting an assessment to evaluate the type and number of beds the will be needed once a new, modern hospital is built on the Wallum Lake Road campus.
“We’re retooling so we can accomodate the needs of all Rhode Islanders,” Charest said. “They’re going to try to come up with an objective assessment of what’s needed here.”
Between current residents and those anticipated in need of Zambarano’s new services, Charest said the hospital is expected to have around 100 beds.
“We think the combination of the two is going to have us in this ballpark,” he said.
As services increase, he said, so too, will the need for workers.
“From a staffing perspective, we will definitely have a place for all of the staff, and we will need more staff,” Charest said.
Johnson outlined Eleanor Slater’s plans to attract that staff to Burrillville amid a nationwide nursing shortage.
“We are spending a lot of time trying to fix the recruitment challenge,” Johnson said, noting that the hospital has begun fostering relationships with universities and firms in neighboring states.
Through a partnership with the Burrillville School Department, some 80 high school career and technical students are expected to take part in shadowing programs at the new hospital.
“Hopefully they will grow and develop into professional nurses and beyond,” Johnson said of the students.
Charest noted that the hospital is already receiving more applications, and that for current staff, the investment will provide growth opportunities.
Wednesday’s discussion seemed to mark a turning point in what has been a community-wide effort to save the hospital over the past three years. Prior to approval of funding to invest at Zambarano, many in Burrillville believed that state was on track to quietly close the facility, with residents sent home, or transferred to other hospitals in the state.
Efforts by legislators, including Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, ultimately led Gov. Dan McKee to include funding in the state budget for the new facility, with older buildings, now vacant for decades, on track to be demolished. All current residents will be transferred to the modern building after construction, Charest said.
“I do appreciate that we’re not talking about closing Zambarano anymore,” Councilor Raymond Trinque said to the visitors this week. “Maybe that won’t have to be our focus anymore.”
Charest, who was named director of BHDDH in 2021, said he’d spoken with de la Cruz earlier in the day.
“She’s a great advocate,” he said.
The Zambarano name, he said, will remain.
“I’m not sure what we’re going to call the new building,” Charest said.
Confirming more than once with officials that those considered the state’s most vulnerable will not need to relocate, advocates, families and the residents themselves seemed on Wednesday to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
“For individuals who have been here for a period of time, this is their home,” Charest said. “We want them to feel comfortable.”
“We’re taking care of some of the most fragile individuals Rhode Island has, and they deserve that care,” said Johnson.