Each of the nine rooms in Hennepin County Medical Center's new pediatric intensive-care unit has a lighted wall with a switch that allows patients and their families to change the color with their mood from blue to green, yellow, purple or red.

That's a seemingly tiny piece of comfort and control patients at the downtown Minneapolis hospital can take at a time when they feel they have none, said Julie Curti, nurse manager of the unit, which officially opens to patients Thursday, with a celebration to be held Wednesday.

"Sometimes when you're in the hospital, everything is taken away from you," she said.

The desire to give families comfort, control and top-notch care inspired the design of the new nine-bed pediatric intensive-care unit, which will replace a seven-bed unit built in the 1970s. The physicians and staff members will remain the same, led by Curti and medical director Dr. Andrew Kiragu.

Curti and Kiragu provided substantial input into the $4.5 million unit, pushing for a state-of-the-art design. "We want a space that highlights the extraordinary care we provide," Kiragu said.

The new environment also will bolster patient and parent confidence in the caregivers, Curti said.

Looking around the old facility, with its windows on a single wall and beds separated by curtains, with no sleeping space for parents, Kiragu said, "The kids of HCMC deserve better. … I've been here 12 years. We do extraordinary work, save thousands of kids' lives, in a space that is functional but not ideal."

The soon-to-be-emptied old pediatric unit is dingy, dark and faded. The new one is soaked in natural light and features a river theme with animal etchings, sparkly terrazzo tile and walls in muted yellow, orange, blue and green. Staffers chose a healing, soothing theme. "We wanted something that would appeal to everybody regardless of their age," Curti said.

Private rooms, with a view

In the new space, every child has a private room, with a pullout couch for parents to sleep nearby. In the old space, the children's beds sat parallel to each other, with no space for parents to sleep beside them without blocking staff access in an emergency.

Each room has large windows with sweeping views of the city. The light is critical for very sick patients, who can suffer from delirium when they lose track of night and day because they don't get the rhythm from natural sunlight.

The rooms all have a mini-fridge, TV and Xbox. A family room down the hall has a kitchenette and a small library for relaxing. And a chair will be placed in a reading nook under a window in a hall. "It's just quiet; you can kind of hide," Kiragu said.

A desk for staffers and a conference room with glass doors are set up in the center of all the rooms to allow constant monitoring of all patients.

Standing at one end of the new unit, Curti said, "The best feature of the room is you can stand here and see all the patients."

Parents and patients can pull curtains when they want privacy. Families can also come and go with a code for the electronic keypad rather than wait for staffers to let them in, as they do now. "We want them to at least be comfortable where they are," Curti said. "It's one less thing to worry about."

Beyond the aesthetics, the unit was designed to be ideal for staff, with upgraded hygienic and mechanical features. Above each bed is a hydraulic lift to help move a patient. The new negative airflow room for infectious patients includes an antechamber, something the old one didn't have.

Each room has a foam disinfectant at the entry and exit points, which wasn't the case in the old unit. For hospital staff, "foaming" has to be readily available so it can be automatic when one walks in and out of a room — which wasn't the layout in the old unit, Kiragu and Curti pointed out.

Monitors in each room will display a child's vital signs and other indicators related to the patient's condition.

Ready to serve the president, and the community

HCMC is a safety-net hospital that takes patients regardless of their ability to pay. It's also one of two designated facilities when a U.S. president is in town. It has adult and pediatric Level 1 trauma center designations, meaning it's able to provide an array of critical care around the clock.

Dr. Jon Pryor, HCMC's chief executive officer, said the upgrade was important to the hospital's mission. "We're committed to providing state-of-the-art, patient- and family-friendly facilities across our system, and as a leader in trauma and critical care in the region, our intensive-care units were a top priority for renovation," he said. "We've now brought all of our ICUs [medical, surgical and pediatric] up to a new standard — which is wonderful for the entire community."

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747