SHERIDAN – In November 2007, a month after starting his new job as chief executive officer of the Ruby Valley Hospital in Sheridan, John Semingson was digging through a filing cabinet, seeing what “surprises he could come up with,” when he happened upon a $15,000 grant from the Montana Hospital Association to conduct a master site plan analysis that would examine the feasibility of building a new healthcare facility in this small Madison County town of about 675 people.
Eleven years and nearly $12.5 million later, that feasibility study is on the brink of becoming a 29,000-square-foot reality.
There’s still equipment to install, electrical issues to sort out, furniture to move, and other details to deal with, but if all goes according to plan, the staff and contents of the existing (and adjoining) Ruby Valley Hospital and Ruby Valley Medical Clinic will move across the street and officially open the doors to the brand new Ruby Valley Medical Center on Sept. 22.
On a recent morning, Semingson offers a visitor what he calls a “before and after” tour, starting with a trip through the cramped and outdated exam rooms and offices of the current hospital, which was built in 1964. He points out the duct tape on a hallway floor that acts as an ad hoc space for physical therapy. He shows off an exterior garage that houses the hospital's CT scan machine. He notes that Life Flight helicopters currently have to land in a nearby field instead of on a landing pad. He points out the one shower that serves all patients. He peeks into the hospital laboratory, where an employee is working with his laptop resting atop a biohazard trash can due to a lack of counter space.
“We don’t have room for anything,” Semingson says.
Then he heads across the street, where everything is notably new, from the sod to the pavement to the sign announcing this as the Ruby Valley Medical Center and leads his visitor past the vehicles of various subcontractors and through the automatic doors of one of the new building’s various entrances.
Inside, he points out all the new amenities. There’s a conference room where staff will have the opportunity for educational sessions, a bathroom designed especially for conducting urine analyses, a new 45-slice CT scan machine notably located inside instead of in a garage, a decontamination room with a drain that leads to special holding tanks, in-patient rooms with their own showers, a new physical therapy suite with room enough for a small gym, a visiting specialist clinic with two exam rooms, and a telemedicine room where patients can consult with medical professionals located off-site.
“We’ve kind of made a big leap, haven’t we?” Semingson says. “A major leap.”
While the clinic’s sole physician, Dr. Roman Hendrickson, agrees that the new facility is a big step forward, he says those improvements are really about bringing medical care in the Ruby Valley “up to speed” with modern technology.
“We’re going from a ’64 Chevy to a 2018 (model),” Hendrickson says. “But we didn’t go for a King Ranch. We went for the F-150.”
The practical approach has been in place since the beginning, according to Ken Walsh, president of the Ruby Valley Hospital’s board of trustees.
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Walsh says officials looked first at simply remodeling the existing hospital and clinic before determining that doing so wouldn’t actually save any money. As they began working toward a new facility, Walsh says they focused on what was “achievable” and scoured for funding that would make their vision feasible. They found the bulk of it — $9.95 million — through a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Community Facilities Program.
While Walsh says planners had to “scale everything back to meet that” budget during the design process, the project received a major boost from the Ruby Valley Healthcare Foundation, which has raised some $4 million from donors who have given gifts ranging from $10 to $500,000, according to Walsh.
RVHF president Les Gilman says his group exceeded fundraising expectations and still continues to raise money long after surpassing its goals. Gilman says he’s been “astounded by the generosity of the community,” and he attributes that generosity not only to the vision for an up-to-date facility but also to the long history of “exceptional care” provided by the local hospital and clinic.
“I believe that the community has an affinity for the exceptional healthcare that they’ve received here,” he says.
Gilman can personally testify to that track record. He was born in the current hospital’s predecessor, and three of his children were born in the existing Ruby Valley Hospital. Of the hospital’s modest emergency room, Gilman says “our lives were saved there.”
Casey Blumenthal, vice president of the nonprofit Montana Hospital Association, says Gilman’s experience is common among the state’s extensive rural population. According to Blumenthal, there are 48 other small-town hospitals like the one in Sheridan, all of which provide a vital service for Montana’s rural population.
“While they might seem like they’re really tiny, in some cases, they’re a critical point of access for the community members,” Blumenthal says.
And she argues that new technology like telemedicine “brings a whole new realm of possibility to the community.”
According to Walsh, the possibility the new healthcare facility represents is primarily about the valley’s physical health — but it’s also about the area’s economic vitality.
“It adds a presence that we are a community, a valley, that wants to continue to grow,” Walsh says. “It’s a vibrant, alive community.”
A grand opening celebration of the Ruby Valley Medical Center will take place Aug. 18 at 11 a.m.