SMH executives David Verinder and Lorrie Liang pose proudly in front of the hospital’s new oncology tower. Photograph by Wyatt Kostygan
An aquamarine sparkle reflects the paradise of Sarasota in the pans of the Brian D. Jellison Cancer Institute’s Oncology Tower at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. The instantly iconic addition of Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH) is an integral part of the city’s skyline, as the doctors inside serve patients from across the region with or at risk of cancer. Meanwhile, a new campus for Sarasota Memorial Hospital is redefining the Laurel Road interchange on Interstate-75 from a truck stop to a critical destination for those in need of medical attention. The multimillion-dollar facility expands SMH’s physical presence with a full-service public hospital, serving South County for the first time in history. It’s all part of an unprecedented expansion of the hospital system’s footprint and regional facilities, and an expansion that won’t end anytime soon.
“Our vision is to establish hospitals in key locations, first on Laurel Road and then in North Port, to provide convenient acute care to these growing communities. We think it’s time to move on. — David Verinder, CEO of Sarasota Memorial Health Care System
Plans for an oncology tower come as cancer cases continue to rise in the region and nationally. SMH officials decided in 2015 that as part of the system’s strategic plan, improvements to cancer services in the region would be essential. Lorrie Liang, president of the Sarasota campus for SMH, said when the hospital was gathering data on what the community needed to move forward, they learned a startling fact.
“About 50% of people diagnosed here at SMH leave our county for cancer care,” Liang said. “It was really amazing and shocking to us, that people sometimes felt like with such a serious diagnosis, you had to get in your car or a plane to get the care you needed.” The hospital therefore embarked on the construction of the new Oncology Tower, a 180,000 square foot facility with 56 private suites dedicated to cancer patients spread over two floors. Nine operating theaters have been specially equipped with Da Vinci robotic equipment for the treatment of cancer. To increase comfort for patients and families, the Oncology Tower even has dedicated kitchens, waiting facilities, a juice bar, and a rooftop cafe with a nutrition-focused menu. and an 8th-floor view of Sarasota Bay.
The decision on what to include in the cancer center came after a conclusive assessment of the most prevalent forms of cancer in the area and the greatest needs for preventive and surgical care. The goal was to find a comprehensive level of care to help patients from diagnosis. The goal at every step was to ensure that no one living in Sarasota would ever have to leave this area to obtain the highest quality care while fighting for their own life. Radiation therapy, infusion technology, and other medical oncology treatments available for major forms of cancer are now available on or off campus, including at a Radiation Therapy Center on University Parkway that opened in August 2020.
“We are really excited because we have hired many fellowship-trained oncologists, oncology surgeons who are tumor site specific, breast, thyroid, parathyroid, ENT, chest, etc. “, said Liang. “We are delighted to hire some very good surgeons to complement our existing staff. And we knew the caliber of doctors we were looking for wouldn’t come or stay if we didn’t have this holistic approach.
It’s not just cancer treatment that’s growing on the Sarasota campus. The hospital is in the process of removing the existing facility at the Bayside Center for Behavioral Health on Osprey Avenue, which officials say has lost its usefulness. “Behavioral health needs are on the rise, and we have people diagnosed as needing behavioral health services who are either leaving this county or not being treated,” Liang said.
Today, SMH has an ongoing $65 million inpatient and outpatient facility dedicated to helping patients overcome crises and maintain mental health. Liang said a continuum of services will be provided there. It will include a 16-bed geriatric unit, a 22-bed unit for children and adolescents, 24 beds for adults, and then a 22-bed acute care unit. The hospital plans to innovate there this month.
Improvements to the hospital required a heavy investment, more than is available simply through a tax base, even one that spans the entire county in a community with high property values. The new behavioral health facility is possible in large part thanks to a $10 million donation from retail giant Brian Cornell, CEO of Target, and his wife Martha. The establishment will bear the name of the family.
“I have the privilege of leading a team of over 350,000 people and have seen firsthand the power of creating a caring culture that prioritizes mental health and wellbeing, and provides resources, space and support for all families,” Brian Cornell said in a statement. “I also recognized the importance of humanizing this topic, removing the stigma that discourages some people from seeking the support they need, while improving access to care that puts people at the centre. I hope this project sheds light on the importance of comprehensive behavioral healthcare and inspires others to support this project and others like it across the country.
Martha Cornell added, “We are proud to play a part in creating this state-of-the-art behavioral health lodge, whose centralized approach addresses an immense need by providing convenient, comprehensive care under one roof. . . We know it will change countless lives in Sarasota, a community that has been dear to our family for years, and we hope it inspires change across the country. But that’s just one of the ongoing philanthropic missions carried out by the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation. The oncology tower is being funded by a $75 million capital campaign, a dollar amount to cover the new radiation therapy center and tower in Sarasota, but also a planned Venice tower that will mirror the Sarasota facilities. Foundation spokeswoman Tricia Mahler said private support helps push the expansion of new facilities forward aggressively, as public revenue generated for the hospital maintains operations.
The growth cements SMH’s position as the dominant healthcare provider for the region, although amidst a global pandemic, the facility’s leaders remain convinced that all hospitals in the region should continue to serve the public.
Sarasota Memorial Hospital, from its beginnings as a public facility, served the entirety of Sarasota County, charging taxes to North Trail residents at the North Port to support the state-of-the-art facility.