Michael Graves' paralysis is giving the architect a unique perspective in designing Omaha's new rehabilitation hospital. Known widely for his award-winning designs of buildings as well as household products, Graves is part of the design team for the $93 million Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital planned for west Omaha. Graves lost the use of his legs in 2003 after contracting an infection.
His New Jersey-based architectural firm, Michael Graves & Associates, joins the DLR Group of Omaha and the Dallas office of Page, a Texas-based architecture and engineering firm, on the design team. Madonna officials expect the 110-bed, 250,000-square-foot hospital to be completed in 2016.
In all, the design team is made up of about 20 people from all three architectural firms, said Tom Penney, the project manager from DLR. “It's a collaborative, team approach,” he said, “with everybody contributing their own expertise.”
Madonna has been offering rehabilitation services in Lincoln since 1966. Many of its patients have spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries, but it also treats people with orthopedic and work-related injuries, amputations and neuromuscular diseases.
The Omaha campus, announced in January 2013 and planned for 21 acres west of Village Pointe shopping center, will be financed with tax-exempt revenue bonds. Madonna officials say the hospital will create more than 800 jobs.
Graves, 79, said his condition has led to health care design being a major focus of his work. “It gives you a greater empathy, certainly,” he said. “People seem to trust us more because I'm in a wheelchair and I know what is needed in these facilities.”
Giving patients some control over their environment is important, said Graves and Patrick Burke, a principal in Graves' firm. Graves recalled one instance early in his rehab when he was being transferred from his bed to a chair using a motorized sling.
“I was getting into the chair that day and I was up in the air, in a sitting position over my chair but not in it yet. The nurse's aide's friend came in and said, 'It's time for our break.' So they left me there dangling in the air and they went on a break. That's as low as it gets.”
Paul Dongilli, Madonna's executive vice president and chief operations officer, said the Omaha rehab center will integrate technology to allow patients with very limited mobility to control things in their room — the TV, the room temperature, doors and the nurse call system. The controls, he said, may be manipulated by a hand-held device or activated by voice or the wave of a hand.
Even something that basic, he said, “makes that individual a very active participant in their treatment program, not a passive kind of observer.” Engaging patients in the rehab process, he said, helps them achieve their goals faster.
Dongilli said Graves told Madonna officials that one rehab center encouraged him to be independent. But when Graves tried to turn on the water in the sink, he was unable to because the arms on his wheelchair blocked him from getting close enough to the faucet handles. Graves has since designed a wheelchair with adjustable arms.
In 2009, Graves formed a design partnership with Stryker Medical to design patient room furniture. The Michael Graves Design Group, which has designed household products for Target and J.C. Penney, “is working every day on health care,” Graves said.
Both Graves & Associates and DLR have been willing to listen to suggestions from the staff, patients and patients' families at Madonna's Lincoln rehab center, Dongilli said.
Burke, the Graves architect, said patient rooms in the Omaha hospital will provide plenty of storage space for families whose children must stay for extended periods, and laundry services will be available for families. Dongilli said the average patient stays more than 30 days at Madonna.
Many rehab patients are more mobile than patients in an acute-care hospital, Burke said, so designers “can create social spaces and places for people to gather and do other things.”
Graves said many architects want the hospitals they design to resemble hotels. “Well, I don't,” he said. “I don't think it needs a big atrium and I don't think the rooms have to look like a hotel room. These are hospital rooms, and you want to have good care. What makes the difference is the empathy. Have people caring for you and teaching you how to get over your difficulties in terms of your problems with walking or breathing or moving or whatever.”
Graves and Burke have made frequent visits to the Madonna center in Lincoln over the past year. The visits convinced them of the value of Madonna's approach to rehab. “It's not just about rehabilitating you physically,” Burke said, “but to truly be rehabilitated, you also have to rehabilitate the spirit and your state of mind and the family.”
“The staff is more skilled than I have seen in the United States,” Graves said. “I wish I'd known about them when I was in rehabilitation.”