Can you imagine putting your best friends through significant pain, knowing that you could have prevented it? How about literally choking their customers or threatening their employees? You just don't treat friends that way.
Jerry Wolf stands above the lobby of the recently constructed Northwest Addition at Waukesha Memorial Hospital

In June, CG Schmidt Construction completed the construction of the Northwest Addition at Waukesha Memorial Hospital in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a five-story tower that houses 128 private patient rooms and a new ER. This is only the most recent project; the company has been working with the hospital for more than 50 years. On the outside, Waukesha Memorial Hospital is an established, state-of-the-art, rapidly expanding healthcare facility today. On the inside, it's a well-choreographed operation of careful planning and communication, and provides clinical expertise in a demonstration of how a hospital takes care of people. People like Jerry Wolf.

On an otherwise ordinary day, Jerry Wolf ended up in the emergency room—an ER that he had remodeled several times and has since replaced and even moved. He hadn't had a cardiac episode or experienced a construction accident. He had been in a terrible multivehicle collision—or so the ER staff was supposed to believe. The blood was fake. The broken limbs were feigned. The groaning was a little overdone. Jerry Wolf, CG Schmidt Construction's on-site superintendent for more than 13 years, was a volunteer mock-disaster victim.

As Wolf was wheeled in that day, he knew the nurses by their first names. When he left, he had gained a new respect for the ER staff and an intimate knowledge of the stresses and difficulties they face every day. He has had many opportunities since then to apply that knowledge in his work.

“If you really think about it,” Wolf says, “construction and healthcare should be a mutually exclusive set of activities. For 13 years I've added onto and remodeled a facility that can't take dust, noise, chemical smells, or many other byproducts of construction.” But the job has to get done somehow, which is why Wolf and his staff know the questions that have to be asked before proceeding: “Will we impact anyone? Are patients tolerant of my work while they're lying in bed? After all, they are our friends and relatives working here and being healed here.”

Sometimes, the answer to such questions can be yes—if that work consists of quietly caulking a patient's sink. Operating a jackhammer to remove some old terrazzo flooring, though, might require some rescheduling.

The demands of such work can be intimidating for a carpenter or laborer who comes in from outside, which is why only a select few of them are able to work well alongside sensitive, sick patients and intensely pressured staff. The entire construction team, including a multitude of tradesmen, must share an attitude of: “Care for everyone around you first before you attend to your own needs.”

Jerry Wolf (right) and Chuck Mueller, a carpenter/subforeman at CG Schmidt, review some construction plans
Don Dassow is one of the select few who have that attitude. Dassow is a plumber with the Milwaukee-based Illingworth Corporation. He is used to working within the construction restrictions posed by healthcare facilities, as he has been working in hospitals for 35 years. “We're always working where we have to be in occupied areas,” Dassow says, adding that plumbing is especially unique, in that work on the floor at one level also requires access to the ceiling below. Therefore, Dassow has to be conscious of patients and staff both above and beneath his workplace. And if the water supply is interrupted, work has to be done in the middle of the night, when it will have minimal impact on patients and staff.

Chuck Mueller, a carpenter/subforeman at CG Schmidt, is currently working at Waukesha Memorial and knows the rules of construction there all too well. “You have to be able to communicate with everyone in the department,” Mueller says. “If you're scheduling work that's going to be noisy, you have to find a good time.”

During contractor orientation, CG Schmidt establishes rules for its workers that exemplify the “others first” attitude required to work in a hospital environment. Wolf insists that his staff and tradespeople take every precaution available. He has them learn about the environment where they will be working and what goes on there, so that they can, in effect, “think like a nurse or a physician” before proceeding.

Patients’ locations and conditions, and how construction materials might affect them, are always taken into consideration. For example, Wolf and the crew know that plaster releases more dust-like debris into the air than drywall, so better filtration is needed to protect sensitive lungs.

“We try to communicate as much in advance as we can,” says Matt Wade, vice-president of construction and facilities for Waukesha Memorial. For example, hospital staff receive noise updates and advanced warnings of construction practices that could affect patient treatment. Wade also passes along information about the duration of a project.

And then there's Plan B. “If it becomes intolerable, we stop,” says Wade.

Aside from noise, dust, and other byproducts of construction, Wolf notes that bad smells also have to be kept at bay. Odors from materials like paint and latex can drastically affect the well-being of a patient who is nauseous from chemotherapy or someone with allergies or a sensitive stomach caused by a medication.

In general, contractors’ treating their clients like their best friends, or even close family members, makes a healthcare-improvement project a pleasure. They spend an enormous amount of money on clients’ behalf. They protect clients’ business interests. They ensure that facility staff are safe. They are there when called. They are there from the beginning until the end—and in between. They grow with their clients and see them through difficult times. And, hopefully, they are missed when they are gone. HD