Life Preserver


By Brad A. Greenberg '04

Published Apr 1, 2007 8:00 AM

When it opened a half-century ago, UCLA Medical Center was hailed as a marvel of healing technology. When a new hospital opens, almost everything will be changed. But one thing remains the same — the university’s renowned medical facility is still exploring new frontiers in medicine.

1958: Surgery, “Atomic Era” style, at UCLA in 1958. Among the amazing innovations: underground operating rooms, observation domes and 12 miles of walkable corridors. 2003: A UCLA team of today saves lives in a sci-fi surgical suite that's fully integrated and centrally controlled.

"UCLA TO BUILD FIRST ATOM ERA HOSPITAL." So proclaimed the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 26, 1949. The $15.5-million medical center would serve the campus' 2-year-old School of Medicine, which had yet to enroll its first student, and would be designed to provide cutting-edge medical care for the whole region.

"Construction on one of the greatest medical meccas in the world will begin in the next few weeks at the University of California at Los Angeles," another Times article gushed on Nov. 30, 1950. In the new Atomic Hospital, the story said, the radiology department would shield exposure from powerful X-ray machines by burying them in the basement. Operating rooms would also be underground to improve efficiency and protect against disaster, and would be equipped with observation domes so medical students could watch surgical procedures instead of just reading about them. Medical gases would be delivered directly to double-occupant patient rooms through a central system, not individual tanks. And the massive facility, with 600,000 square feet and 12 miles of walkable corridors, would be flexible enough to adapt to rapid change.

"Because this is really going to be an entirely new kind of medical school and research center, we have had to plan it for 50 years ahead of time — for A.D. 2000 instead of 1953," said Dr. Stafford L. Warren, founding dean of UCLA School of Medicine and former medical chief for the Manhattan Project.

See the Future

Take a 12-minute video trip to the hospital of the future. Log on to UCLA Healthcare and scroll down to Video News.

But medicine has evolved so rapidly since the 320-bed Atomic Hospital first opened in 1955 that the gap between it and the hospitals of today seem more like points in parallel realities than two eras separated by scientific advancement. And UCLA is once again at the forefront of a new frontier in medicine.

It has taken 13 years and one big earthquake (UCLA officials are frank about the unlikelihood of ever securing the funds for a new hospital without the $432 million — about half the hospital's total cost — FEMA gave after the 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged the current building). But on June 4, the long-awaited dedication ceremony for The Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, the 21st century's first new major hospital, will finally occur.

Welcome to the "Digital Era" hospital.

Check In, Log On, Get Well

The new facility combines the operations of UCLA Medical Center, the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA and Mattel Children's Hospital in a 1-million-square-foot, 10-story building at Westwood Plaza and Young Drive South. An architectural masterpiece designed by I.M. Pei and his son, Didi, the new hospital will be flush with sunlight, a crazy-fast computer network and a digital attitude.

"We have been able to combine the high-technology, 21st-century medicine with an environment that is very soothing and comforting to [patients'] families," says Dr. Gerald Levey, who, as vice chancellor of UCLA Medical Sciences and dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine, spearheaded the project. "UCLA medical services and medical school are in a great position to be the preeminent medical provider in the United States."

From installing Internet hook-ups in every patient room, to operating rooms crammed with enough high-tech to turn heads at the Consumer Electronics Show, to a surgical robot that allows physicians to communicate with and observe intensive-care patients from their office or home, the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center already is being called the hospital of the future.