The payoff of a great community effort

In the looming shadow of the Measure B vote, a celebration was held on Saturday that reaffirmed, for those who wondered, the essential community qualities that make Sonoma a special place.

With the new emergency room and surgical wing as a backdrop, a distinguished assemblage gathered outside Sonoma Valley Hospital to pay tribute to the extraordinary struggle and the triumphant, $46 million effort that went into saving the hospital.

There were times, in the wake of the 1994 Northridge earthquake and the subsequent state legislation mandating dramatically higher seismic safety standards for California hospitals, when it seemed doubtful that Sonoma Valley’s only emergency room would survive.

Because, as any healthcare administrator will tell you, emergency rooms never pay for themselves and, without a full-service hospital to carry the financial load, ER becomes a medical necessity no one can afford.

But seismic safety was only one of the challenges confronting our hospital. A central heating and cooling plant, dating from deep into a previous century, was (in some cases literally) held together with duct tape and bailing wire.

Patient rooms were dingy, the surgical center was dated and, in an era of digital obsolescence for technologies more than a year old, Sonoma Valley Hospital had a computer system still running on DOS, an operating system from the 1980s.

Deciding where and what to build required an epic political battle, a failed ballot measure, a re-examination of basic assumptions and a willingness on all sides to explore every conceivable solution. Proposals, counter proposals and preposterous suggestions filled the air like verbal confetti, but in the end, with the help of state legislation and some inspired strategic thinking, a design-build, build-in-place plan emerged requiring, in total, some $46 million, which was less than half the lowest previous estimate.

Finding the money was the next challenge and the community stepped up, first by soundly approving a renewed parcel tax, next by approving a $35 million general obligation bond and then stepping up to finance the $11 million cost of outfitting the new facility.

Through it all, there remained a number of steadfast heroes, perhaps most prominent among them Gary and Marcia Nelson whose infant son Justin would have died but for the close proximity and expertise of the Sonoma Valley emergency room. The Nelsons have never forgotten the gift of Justin’s life and their thanks have been expressed in many ways, including millions of dollars.

That generosity helped inspire others, including Les and Judy Vadasz, Sandy and Joan Weill, Bill and Gerry Brinton, Bill Jasper, the McQuown family, Sarah and Darius Anderson, Arline and Buddy Pepp, Jack Leahy and Martha Murphy, Kimberly and Simon Blattner, Diane and Peter Donnici, Phyllis and John Gurney, Jim Lamb, Mary’s Pizza Shack, John and Pam Story and the Sangiacomo family, along with many more.

Maybe most impressive, as Gary Nelson told the Saturday assemblage, the hospital was saved and rebuilt, not by “politicians in Washington, not state officials in Sacramento, nor big insurance companies meeting in D.C. plotting the insurance and healthcare mess we have facing us today. They did not help make this happen … Today we know a small community like ours can do this without the support of a government contribution.”