Nearly 18 months after opening, the pediatric emergency department at Stamford Hospital — the first of its kind in the region — is plenty busy.
That’s both a good thing and a bad thing when it comes to emergency health care, said Dr. Heather Machen, the hospital’s director of pediatric emergency medicine.
Machen said that while the department, which opened in September 2016, typically sees patients “in the upper teens” daily, the unexpected upswing in flu cases this winter has spiked patient numbers to the low 30s. On Jan. 21, she said, the staff saw 70 children in a 24-hour period.
“That’s not just us,” said Machen. “The numbers are surging right now
The pediatric emergency department’s patient volume has also increased “tremendously” as more people learn of its existence, Machen said, adding that people now come from as far away as Westchester County.
A Greenwich native, Machen came to Stamford in 2016 following nine years at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston as an attending physician in the emergency center. “My friends who had children with an emergency would call me in Houston and ask, ‘Where should we go?’” she recalled. “And I’d tell them that their best bet was Yale (Yale New Haven Pediatric Specialty Center in New Haven). Then they’d really panic: ‘I don’t want to drive on I-95!’”
“And let’s face it,” she added with a laugh, “who does?”
The pediatric emergency department consists of eight treatment spaces within the hospital’s 50 adult treatment spaces, partitioned in such a way that staff can easily move from one to the other while shielding children and their families from “what can be a bit much” in the adult ER, Machen said. “Craziness going on in the background doesn’t help anybody,” she noted.
A jaunty nautical theme — “let’s face it, it’s ‘Nemo’,” Machen said — also strives to make an ER visit feel “as nice and safe as it can be” for young patients. Local donors, including a Girl Scout troop and students at area elementary schools, have also donated toys and artwork to add a homey touch.
The pediatric emergency department was funded in part by a $20 million donation from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation made in 2014. Named after its donors, the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children’s Institute also includes the Cohen Children’s Unit — 10 all-private patient rooms decorated with the oceanic theme — and the Cohen Children’s Specialty Center at Tully Health Center, which offers a program for families to make healthy lifestyle changes. The Tully Center at 23 Strawberry Hill Court is about a 10-minute drive from Stamford Hospital.
With a dedicated pediatric surgeon, Dr. Gerard Weinberg, on staff, “We can now keep children here if they need to be admitted,” Machen said. “A year ago, they would have needed to be transferred, which means you’re looking at adding 45 to 90 minutes, depending on traffic, going up and down 95, which again can be very stressful.”
The pediatric emergency department is continuing to expand, she said, with respiratory therapy and urology leading the way.
Pediatric patient hours are noon to 10 p.m. At other times, those patients are seen by emergency department doctors who are supported around the clock by pediatric hospitalists and specialists, including Machen.
Hours, staff and services will continue to be expanded “as needed. We will respond to whatever the community asks of us,” Machen said.