The Mississippi Center for Medically Fragile Children, the first-of-its-kind in the state, is set to begin construction in 2021, as announced in December 2019.

The medical status of its patients will vary. Some children who will live at this center have been injured in accidents. Others have congenital or genetic conditions, and still others may be dependent on ventilators or feeding tubes to survive, with many often relying on wheelchairs for mobility.

What all of these cases have in common is that the life saving care necessary for these children comes with a tremendous amount of expense, mostly borne by the hospital system or the state. Costs regularly run into the millions of dollars for the 24/7 care in a hospital setting, and several of the children will unfortunately require indefinite medical care.

Even still, the facility will provide a home-like atmosphere with areas for dinners and programs indoors, and an outdoor space for recreation, for children who are receiving long-term care at Batson Children’s Hospital at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC). Families will receive the training needed for anticipated home care, and for patients whose conditions require a higher level of care, families will be welcomed for visits in an environment more like home than merely a sterile clinical setting.

More importantly, the facility will be designed with the unique needs that these care facilities require. Accessibility for various modalities of transportation – wheelchairs, walkers, and specially designed beds – are typically almost impossible to retrofit into buildings not originally designed to accommodate those needs.

Nurse practitioner Regina Qadan applauded the facility plans. She was quoted in the December release saying it will allow palliative care patients a chance to enjoy the pleasures of home.

“The children of complex care are so much more than their medical conditions,” Qadan said. “They are brave, resilient, amazing and are so loved…this home is what they need, and more importantly, what they dream of.”

Batson Children’s Hospital is Mississippi’s only hospital dedicated to the medical care of children, which is why a partnership between the State of Mississippi and Children’s was paramount in seeing this to fruition, both in terms of long-term operation and proximity to care.

This new center will be built on a piece of property owned by the State of Mississippi to the south of Eastwood Drive in Jackson, an ideal location given the partnership with the state, its proximity within three minutes from the UMMC campus, and for the safety of the facility’s residents, staff, and guests.

State Rep. Alyce G. Clarke’s name will adorn the building as the 35 year incumbent has sought to have such a facility locate in the metro area for many years. Clarke, former First Lady of Mississippi Deborah Bryant, and many others have worked to develop relationships, fundraise, and ultimately pass legislation that would support building the children’s center in conjunction with UMMC.

In 2019, the Legislature directed $12.5 million in state bonds funds to assist in paying for the costs associated with the construction, furnishing, and equipping of the center. The bill, HB 1160, was signed into law by former Governor Phil Bryant after it passed the Mississippi House 108-4 and garnered unanimous approval in the state Senate. Total bond support nears $14.5 million.

State Senator Josh Harkins has also been a champion for this facility. His support helped solidify the vote in his chamber.

“Talks on this facility were started some 10 years ago. This wasn’t a flash in the pan that just happened,” Harkins said.

Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Jackson was once considered as a potential location but the site not only had proximity issues to UMMC, as Harkins says, it also caused concern from a cost perspective.  That building, originally constructed in 1929 and subsequently placed on the National Historic Register would have cost millions in additional dollars to retrofit for the transportation, power and medical service needs this facility requires.

“There was a church considered for this project. It was reported to have some significant construction related issues that were going to drive the costs up exponentially,” Harkins recalled. “The project ended up being placed on state owned land to mitigate the costs and is going to be administered by UMMC, a state institution.”

The catalyst for the push that finally moved the ball across the goal line can be traced back to when former First Lady Bryant met a patient at the Children’s Hospital nearly a decade ago, a girl who had lived at the hospital since being seriously injured in a car accident as a young child.

The idea for such a facility had been discussed for years before Bryant was involved. But it was her passion about the project that drew attention to the issues, allowing stakeholders to earnestly begin exploring the feasibility of providing a new facility aimed at improving outcomes for the children and potential locations that met the necessary proximity for ease in treatment at UMMC.

The Bryants took the cause to heart, championing the children’s care and working to put the pieces together that not only made the most sense for the patients and their families, but for the State of Mississippi, as well, knowing the costs would be substantial.

A non-profit foundation was organized by a similar name as the future facility to advocate for its development, explore sites, garner the necessary political and regulatory approvals, obtain a certificate of need, provide initial design and engineering, and drive interest in the center. The Bryants lent their name and love of the cause to the effort to attract private donors which contributed nearly $2 million, yet neither Bryant has sought recognition, content to see the facility on track and honoring Rep. Clarke in the process.

Now that the center has gained approval in the Legislature, the non-profit is being dissolved. Approximately $1 million has been donated to UMMC for the project, with another $1 million forthcoming. None of those funds have come by way of Families First, the organization whose leadership was arrested earlier this year following an investigation by the State Auditor’s office.

The funds the non-profit received from that entity, some $12,000, was returned and Nancy New was removed from any ties to the organization.

Senator Harkins noted that some have sought to cast a shadow on the impact Deborah Bryant had on moving the project forward.

“If people are concerned about the health and well being of these children, then point to someone who has worked harder then Deborah Bryant,” Harkins said.  “She has worked harder for the health and quality of life for these children than anyone, going out and beating on doors to raise funds and awareness to see this through.  Implying otherwise is just egregious.”

In addition to the health and life benefits this new center will provide, the Mississippi Center for Medically Fragile Children will also help substantially reduce costs at UMMC and ensure Medicaid dollars are properly utilized while freeing beds and patient resources at UMMC.

“If the main thing is the main thing, and we’re talking about the health and well being of these children, they don’t need to be living in an acute care setting. The acute care setting is not the place nor the services these children need,” Senator Harkins said. “It is a financial savings to the hospital to get these children into a better suited facility for them and their needs, and then it would also be able to provide beds for children and patients who need those acute care services.”

UMMC and Children’s Hospital officials lined up to comment on the need this facility addressed in Mississippi at the ceremonial groundbreaking.

“This is the start of something new, historic and very close to all of our hearts,” said Guy Giesecke, CEO of Children’s of Mississippi, as quoted in the release. “We have patients at our children’s hospital who could live in a more home-like space if skilled nursing care was available. We want for these patients what we want for all children: health, happiness and for them to reach their full potential.”

Dr. Mary Taylor, Suzan B. Thames Chair, professor and chair of pediatrics, said the new facility will be an integral part of Children’s of Mississippi, the pediatric arm of UMMC.

“We have a special group of patients who need this facility,” Thames stated in the release. “We will give them and other children the care they need in a more homelike atmosphere.”

Dr. Christian Paine, chief of pediatric palliative care at UMMC, said the facility will be a home for the Children’s of Mississippi patients who have been unable to leave hospital care, but he notes that the true need may not be fully known yet.

“This may be a case of ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Paine added in the release. “Once this center is open and available, we may find more patients in the state and region in need of this level of care.”

Mark Rolph, Executive Director of Communications at UMMC, says to his knowledge, the center’s construction timeline remains intact even with the challenges resulting from the current COVID-19 pandemic.