Photo by Erin O. Smith

Future Forward

Published on January 24th, 2024 by Christina Echegaray.

The stories recounted in the anniversary edition of Hope illustrate the history of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt; how the dedicated pediatric facility moved from dream to reality; how the hospital’s care teams have provided hope and healing to countless children and families; and how much the community has rallied around the hospital and its programs since day one. Meg Rush, MD, MMHC, President of Monroe Carell, recently sat down with Hope editor Christina Echegaray to discuss and give insight into what’s next for the hospital.

What are some of the projects we can expect to be completed in the next three to five years at Monroe Carell?

We have experienced so much growth over the past 20 years at Monroe Carell, yet we’re always excited to be looking ahead to the future. We are finishing the build-out of the last two floors, 12 and 14, of our four-floor expansion atop the original hospital structure — a few years ahead of initial planning. This will mark the culmination of the multiyear Growing to New Heights expansion project, made possible by the generous support of our community. These floors will enable developing even more comprehensive and multidisciplinary programs of care for the children and families we serve. We expect the 14th floor to be completed and opened in late 2024, with the 12th floor set to open in early 2025.

Simultaneously, we’re thrilled to move forward with plans to upgrade and expand our comprehensive childhood cancer center, which was paused during the pandemic. The renovations will enable us to offer a robust, state-of-the-art space to match our nationally recognized pediatric oncology expertise and research programs. The renovated outpatient space will include increased capacity, more private spaces for our cancer patients, and added chairs for chemotherapy and medical infusions. These enhancements were made possible by the generosity of individuals and businesses in the community through Monroe Carell’s Campaign Against Childhood Cancer.

We are in the process of moving our general pediatric practice to a larger space, off the main campus, at Vanderbilt Health One Hundred Oaks. We’ll have about 10,000 square feet more than our existing space, with increased capacity for exam, lactation and consultation rooms. The vacated space on campus will allow us to grow medical specialties as well as add a dedicated pediatric dialysis space.

Are there any “wish list” projects for Monroe Carell?

Our strategic approach historically has been to build programs to meet the needs of children. The next big gap to fill for pediatric services will be a pediatric inpatient rehabilitation unit. Our vision is to build a unit of Monroe Carell that would enable children who require inpatient rehabilitation services and ongoing health care to do both under one roof. Currently, Tennessee does not have a pediatric inpatient rehabilitation facility, and children in Tennessee who need this type of care must travel out of state, which can put a tremendous burden on families.

The inpatient pediatric rehabilitation space at Monroe Carell will help patients and families remain in state, closer to home, and enable all our teams to come together in a multidisciplinary care model. We are so grateful for the many generous philanthropic partners — the Carell family, Cal Turner Jr., Walmart, Willow Branch Homes, Joe Galante, the Junior League of Nashville, to name a few — who have signed on to support this incredibly important effort. We are excited, and hopeful, for more partners across Tennessee to join us in making this much-needed service a reality for our state’s children and families.

Are there specific programmatic expansions underway or that are planned?

As leaders in pediatric specialty care, we will continue to build on our excellence and journey in delivering personalized medicine for children — something we can do because of the comprehensive expertise across specialties. One program that comes to mind is gene therapy, which has allowed us to treat diseases for children that were once fatal.

We are currently able to offer some of the leading gene therapy treatments for diseases like spinal muscular atrophy and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, two genetic disorders that cause severe, progressive muscle loss. Because of our experience with rare diseases and our long-standing genetics program, we’re poised to become a leading center in delivery of these very personalized treatments and to offer continued hope for many of our families.

Our expansion on the 12th floor will allow us to have space for a new clinical research unit, contributing to the development of new therapies as well.

We are also excited about and anticipate continued expansion of our solid organ transplant program, including beginning some double organ transplants as well as lung transplants. This growth will position us to become a major regional referral center for these services.

Are there plans to expand the facility dog program? Can we get another dog?

Yes! I would love to have at least four facility dogs! The Facility Dog Program at Monroe Carell, supported by Mars Petcare, has proven to be so vital and comforting for our patients, families and our staff.

Our first dog, Squid, a Canine Companions for Independence-certified facility dog, incorporates something soft and gentle and that’s not scary into patient care, whether it’s to help a critical care patient come off a ventilator or help a child get out of bed to do physical therapy. I’ve been impressed by the power of this program, by the work that Squid has been able to do over the past four years, and by the incredible stories of patients he has helped. It’s also fun when he visits my office to say hi!

Not unlike our child life and music therapy programs, it’s a tangible part of how you can help a child get better faster in a way that feels familiar, is fun and motivating. It is part of a different way to look at the healing process, and it’s been hugely successful. We’re currently planning our second dog, with help from several generous partners like Dunkin’, the Teddy Bear Ball hosted by Kacey Musgraves, and Amazon. More to come soon!

How will we continue to keep up with the continued growth in Nashville, the entire Middle Tennessee community and beyond?

Looking to the future growth of Nashville, we know that Vanderbilt University Medical Center has continued to invest in the growth that’s needed to accommodate the demand for our expertise, and that’s been especially true in pediatrics. That’s why we’ve been able to add four floors and expand our outpatient footprint across the entire state to bring care closer to where families live. That investment in supporting the children in our community will continue over time. The success of Monroe Carell will allow us to enable continued expansion and growth — where and what that looks like is several years away.

How will Monroe Carell play a part in training and recruiting the next generation of health care workers?

One of the biggest challenges for pediatric health care — and really health care as a whole — will be the future workforce. Fewer people are choosing pediatrics and then fewer residents are going into pediatric subspeciality care. While our Monroe Carell building is only 20 years old, we have a 100-year history at Vanderbilt in the space of pediatric medical education, training and research. It is because of that, coupled with our expertise in pediatric care and multidisciplinary programs, that I believe we are poised to continue to attract the best trainees as well as the best faculty and nurses from across the country. As true innovators in the area of discovery and in creating models of medical education, I am confident we will continue to contribute to growing the next generation because the work we do at Monroe Carell is really amazing.

How can the community continue to support Monroe Carell?

We have been blessed with great generosity from our community over many, many years. Our building and programs truly would not be where they are today without that support. We need to make more people aware of the magical things that happen in this building 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Community engagement is and will always be a part of what we do, and those relationships are so important. We are so incredibly grateful to our community and partnerships to help us achieve our missions and build our programs.

Our namesake, Monroe Carell Jr., passionately put into words the meaning of this building at the ribbon-cutting 20 years ago. He said, ‘For those of you who have been building this facility, I know you have probably built larger facilities and taller facilities, but you will have never worked on a facility that is more important.’ That still rings true today. This is still the most important building in Nashville.