Every day at the sprawling, bustling complex that is Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center, a small fleet of trucks and vans delivers about 1,250 meals from the main kitchen south of Imperial Highway to satellite kitchens for patients housed north of the highway.
On Erickson Avenue, the main artery linking the medical center's northern and southern grounds, vans zip up and down all day, delivering vials of patients' blood and samples of tissues to the main lab, nearly one-third of a mile south of the main hospital. Electric golf carts turn the avenue into a miniature freeway, as scores of the tiny vehicles trundle workers from one side of Imperial Highway to the other.
For decades, the hospital, internationally known for its ability to rehabilitate people afflicted with disabilities ranging from severe spinal injuries to nerve and brain damage, has been operating a little like a ferry terminal.
The vast facility has grown by leaps and bounds across 210 acres since it opened in 1888 as the county's poor farm, offering ranch work to disabled people. Buildings constructed over the years as living quarters for patients have been converted to storage areas and offices, while the old chapel once used by the poor on the far south end of the grounds has fallen into disuse.
Now, after years of discussion, directors of the prestigious facility have been given the go-ahead to draw up detailed plans for a long-awaited face lift.
On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors approved guidelines for a master plan that includes giving the county permission to develop the southern campus into a potentially lucrative business and industrial park. In return, the county will plow its commercial revenues back into Rancho Los Amigos, helping construct new hospital buildings and treatment facilities to be consolidated on 55 acres retained for hospital use north of Imperial Highway.
'Finally Going to Catch Up'
"This facility is finally going to catch up with our knowledge and our expertise, which are just top-notch," said Matthew Locks, medical director of Rancho.
"The hospital has more than 200 buildings, some of them 50 years old and older," Locks said. "Because of the way it is laid out, the operation of this hospital has been extremely costly and extremely inefficient in terms of how we must use it."
The master plan will unfold over the next 10 or 15 years. Many details, including construction timetables and exact locations of new buildings, have not been worked out.
"We're going to consolidate the hospital in one area," Locks said, "and that is going to give us the benefits of all the technology we have here--but this time at our fingertips."
For instance, Locks said, research facilities will be near lab facilities, allowing both staffs to share equipment, ideas and discoveries.
Semiprivate Rooms Planned
The hospital will be expanded to include a sleek new facility for semiprivate hospital beds that will be on par with modern private hospitals in Los Angeles. Currently, the hospital offers some semiprivate rooms, "but not enough for the demand," Locks said.
In addition, the plan includes a modern warehouse. The hospital has no major warehouse and has been forced to stack supplies and equipment in dozens of small and medium-sized buildings all across the complex--"wherever we can find a space," he said.
During the modernization and commercial development, a key goal of the hospital is that care for its 450 patients not be disrupted, said Edward Renford, associate executive director.
Hospital officials said they hope the only interruption will be the actual move of patients into new buildings. They plan to transfer patients in phases as each building is completed.
Entire Staff to Be Involved
"The relocation of these services without disruption in care is going to be quite a job, and it's going to take a long time," Renford said. "That's why we've decided that everybody's going to be involved in choosing the best way to do it--doctors, nurses, all the departments."
One delicate move will include the transfer to the north campus of a special ward that provides lifelong care for comatose and near-comatose patients, including many young victims of brain damage from motorcycle and car accidents.
But no patients will be moved in the first few years, Renford said. The first phase includes commercial development of an empty part of the southern sector and will not affect the hospital, he said.
In that phase, the county will build a new courthouse on eight acres of land next to the existing county library headquarters south of Imperial Highway.
Nearby, the county will build a business park complex at Rives Avenue and Imperial Highway on 9.6 acres that is now used as a wheelchair race course. Another race course will be built.
County Expects Big Revenues