LIBBY – For 55 minutes early Thursday morning, this Lincoln County town of approximately 2,600 people had as many fully staffed hospitals as Missoula.

Then they loaded Cheryle Amos into an ambulance, drove her across the street, and Bruce Whitfield completed his final act as CEO at St. John’s Lutheran Hospital.

“The last patient has just left the building,” Whitfield declared over the hospital fire alarm’s public address system – only after it turned out that the phone at the nurses’ station he was going to use to make the announcement had also already departed the building.

“I now proclaim St. John’s Lutheran Hospital closed,” Whitfield said.

It was 6:48 a.m. Moments later, employees covered up St. John’s emergency room signs with plastic tarps.

Earlier, at 5:53 a.m., Whitfield – still CEO, just at a brand-new building with a brand-new name – had been on a P.A. system across the street. He officially opened Cabinet Peaks Medical Center, Libby’s new $35 million, 77,000-square-foot hospital, declaring it ready to accept new patients.

Employees immediately removed covers and unveiled signs directing people to the ER there.

***

For the 55 minutes it took to transfer patients from the old hospital to the new, both ERs stood ready to receive new patients.

“Until the old hospital is officially closed, you don’t want ambulance drivers who are used to going there to pull in and be told they have to go somewhere else,” explained marketing manager Kate Stephens.

And so, during those 55 minutes, Dr. Raymond Zurcher finished up his 24-hour shift at the St. John’s Lutheran ER, and Dr. Jay Maloney began his at Cabinet Peaks.

The move – months earlier than once projected – has been long in the planning, and by Wednesday almost everything that could be moved into the new hospital had been.

Except, that is, for the 10 patients who happened to be hospitalized at St. John’s on Thursday morning.

“Today’s move is actually kind of anticlimactic,” Whitfield said. “It only takes a few minutes to get the patients over here.”

Being ready for them in a new building, while still running another hospital, was another matter.

“A lot of preparation had to take place,” said Whitfield, who himself played the part of a patient during a practice move earlier this month. “We hired a move planner, and without him, I don’t know where we’d be.”

Jon Schnebly of J.L. Transitions, an Oregon firm that has helped 40 hospitals make their moves into new digs, assisted on the move from St. John’s to Cabinet Peaks.

“The plans were very detailed,” Whitfield said. “Thank God.”

The project also came in under budget, and was finished four months early, thanks to a mild winter last year that allowed Swank Enterprises of Kalispell and Valier to “get into the ground and start concrete work early,” Whitfield said.

Thursday’s move was made at the same time of a shift change at the hospital(s).

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Darlene Shaver of Troy became the first-ever patient at Cabinet Peaks, when the first ambulance carried her across the street from St. John’s Lutheran.

Aside from the fact that she fell and fractured a hip late last week while getting her grandchildren ready for school, Shaver, 52, seemed a fortuitous first.

She happened to have been brought into this world next door at 62-year-old St. John’s. Also born in the old hospital: Shaver’s five brothers and sisters, her two children and three grandchildren.

She had even once shadowed nurses and aides at St. John’s at the age of 16, when she signed up for a local nurse’s aide course.

Shaver and Amos, 57, of Libby, agreed to allow the media to photograph them as they departed St. John’s and entered Cabinet Peaks. Amos broke an ankle in November, but her recovery has been hampered by illness.

“We have a lot of sick people, but they were feeling up for it,” Stephens said of Shaver and Amos. “They’re excited to be the first at Cabinet Peaks, and the last at St. John’s.”

When St. John’s Lutheran was opened in 1952, folks behind its construction “borrowed” the church’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit status; hence, the hospital’s name for the last six-plus decades. Stephens says when Libby first got a hospital in the early 1900s, it was called Libby Hospital.

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Libby’s newest hospital remains a 25-bed facility – the maximum allowed for what’s known as a “critical access” hospital – but is 24,000 square feet larger than the old one.

“People were in closets trying to work” at St. John’s, Stephens said.

The 25 beds are all now in private rooms with private baths, sleeper units for guests and second-floor views of the Cabinet Mountains. Across the street, patients shared bathrooms and were wheeled to two showers on the main floor.

Additionally, the new hospital has bariatric rooms with lifts to help patients who need it in and out of bed, and four private trauma rooms in the ER. Pregnant moms will give birth in private rooms designed for labor, delivery and postpartum care, and won’t have to move once the baby is delivered.

(Katherine Iverson didn’t enjoy that treatment, but did give birth to the last baby to enter the world at St. John’s. She and father Gary Howard welcomed Evelyn Amelia Rose Howard on Saturday.)

You could fit both operating rooms from the old hospital into either of the operating rooms at the new one. The hospital’s Rolling Rock Café, which includes outdoor seating for warmer months, is a far cry from the cramped quarters the old cafeteria.

And some of the 220 people who work at Cabinet Peaks Medical Center seem proudest of a new wide-bore MRI that went into service Thursday morning – a first for a hospital this size in the region.

Stephens said the nearest similar units are in Spokane and Missoula.

***

“Hands down, the best things about a wide-bore MRI are shorter scan times, better patient comfort, and improved image quality,” said David Broderick, imaging manager. “MRI has traditionally been notorious for tight-fit, noisy, long exams, causing many patients to look to their MRI appointments with dread. The patient experience with our new machine will be sensational. The machine is wider, the tube is shorter, it’s brighter, quieter, and the scan doesn’t take nearly as long.”

Floor-to-ceiling windows in the room housing the machine help make for a more pleasant experience as well.

On the second floor, space above the new hospital’s main entrance was the most highly sought real estate in the facility. It features floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides and the best views available.

“We all thought this should be our office,” Stephens said. Physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy won out.

“It’s just a nice facility,” said Maloney, an ER doctor in Libby for 24 years. “In the old building we were dealing with rusty water and cramped spaces. To renovate it, it would have taken $20 million to do what we needed, and there still wouldn’t have been room to expand.”

“They can add on to this one very easy,” Maloney continued, “and they shouldn’t have to for another 50 years.” He credited the community, the hospital foundation and a “forward-thinking” board of directors for making it possible.

By Thursday morning, all Cabinet Peaks Medical Center needed was patients.

Turned out there were 10, right across the street.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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