New acute inpatient care facility

One of the new patient private suites at the Acute Inpatient Rehabilitation Center.

The UNC Hospitals Hillsborough campus has expanded again as the Acute Inpatient Rehabilitation Center (AIRC) received a penthouse upgrade. 

Located on the seventh-floor bed tower at UNC Memorial Hospital, the AIRC helps optimize patient recovery for a broad scope of conditions, including spinal cord injury, stroke, brain injury, amputation, musculoskeletal disorders, and neurological conditions. The rehab floor offers 42,000 square feet holding 30 patient beds, two gym areas, individual treatment rooms, and a transitional living apartment. The team of Rehabilitation Nurses, Physiatrists (Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physicians), Physical Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Speech Pathologists, Care Managers, and Recreational Therapists work together to improve, restore or maintain functional abilities promoting independent living for patients with disabilities. 

The AIRC becomes a home away from home for some. On average, patients remain on the floor for more than two weeks, and are required to participate in three hours of intensive therapy per day. While being stationed on the main campus has its advantages, the seventh-floor bed tower, built in in 1975, also has its drawbacks. 

One of the [major] challenges we have right now is that we have shared suites,” explained Rehab Nursing Manager Lesley-Anne Bandy. With 12 private rooms and 18 semi-private suites, the pandemic has magnified the issues of shared spaces. Increased visitation restrictions have been required for the rehab floor throughout the pandemic, leading to the concern for patients progress towards recovery and overall mental health. Over the years, the rehab team has continuously battled frustrations regarding accessibility for patients and visitors and has struggled to expand services due to limited space.

Meanwhile, the main campus as a whole continues to evolve. Improvements are being made floor by floor, while the new 357,000-square-foot surgical tower is being built, expected to open in 2024. 

As services expand at UNCs main campus, the hospital has been trying to find which units would be most appropriate to locate to another facility,” said Bandy. 

With the need for improved patient and staff resources, along with the approval for an additional 10 beds, the AIRC was a great fit for the move to Hillsborough. 

The Hillsborough campus offers a nice, calming experience to [focus] on healing,” said Kelly Fletcher, rehab services manager, who is one of many on the rehab team to help develop the new location. There are a lot of us that have been working on this for several years.” 

Input among physicians, nurses, therapists, and administration has been considered as the building plans have been drawn and construction progressed. 

At the end of the day, theyre the ones doing the work,” said Fletcher. Its been great that [staff] has been able to provide feedback along the way and ask questions, especially when it comes to impacting their day.”

The Hillsborough campus will offer 40 private suites spanning across the top two floors of its newest wing. Along with a mini-fridge and a 50-inch television, patient rooms will include a ceiling lift to assist with patient safety and have increased storage for personal belongings. Each floor hosts two nurse stations and private treatment rooms. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the rehabilitation gym walls, giving a panoramic view of the Hillsborough skyline. A dining hall and lounge warmly invite patients and visitors to relax and enjoy time together. The recreation therapy department will now have its own space, and a new outdoor area will soon be designated for therapeutic gardening, sports, and dynamic surface mobility training. 

Overall the facility is 25-30 percent larger than the current location. But perhaps the most exciting addition is the AIRCs Makerspace. In partnership with UNCs BeAM program, the Makerspace will house equipment to help foster creativity and better patient care using emerging technology. 

[The Makerspace is] a space within the hospital that has things such as 3-D printers and laser cutters; [equipment that allows staff] to make custom tools for patients to increase their independence,” explained Fletcher. 

While the exact expectations for this space remain a blank canvas, the potential for innovation seems limitless. 

If nothing else, parking and access for visitors will be much improved. By trading the large parking deck for a single lot, visitors will be able to park directly in front of the hospital entrance, and parking is free. 

Our patients do tend to be here a little longer, so accessibility for families is huge,” Bandy remarked. 

Beyond the space, changes to the rehabilitation program are also expected. After receiving its certificate of need for an additional 10 beds, the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) program plans to increase staff, adding attending and resident physicians. In collaboration with UNC Family Medicine and the Alternative Medicine departments, AIRC will continue to expand its services in unique ways. 

Everything we currently offer here, we plan to offer [in Hillsborough] if not more, but potentially in a different way.” Bandy continued, Dr. Alexander, whos the chair of PM&R, has been a big proponent of trying to make sure were thinking about things in a unique way and giving our patients access to things that they might not get other places.”

The AIRC will officially relocate to the Hillsborough campus on Feb. 7, 2022. 

Being in a more calming, restorative type of environment that Hillsborough offers is important for our patients,” said Bandy. As a rehab program, we are really excited about this move and excited to be part of the Hillsborough Community.”