In the three years since CHRISTUS Santa Rosa announced the transformation of its downtown hospital into the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, its century-old facility on the West side of downtown has been reborn, and the organization has created 207 new jobs and invested millions in the city.

It’s a dream that goes back as far as the early 1900s, when the hospital was led by Mother Robert O’Dea, CCVI. This dream is not only transforming pediatric medicine in the city, but the future of downtown San Antonio itself.

Two-thirds of the hospital’s 172 new faculty members and 23 residents and fellows have relocated from all over the country to make the city their new home. Dr. Neeraj Srivastava arrived at the hospital three years ago to help staff the intensive care unit along with Dr. Elumalai Appachi, who came from the renowned Cleveland Clinic.

Like Appachi, Srivastava is a pediatric critical care physician. He completed a fellowship at Texas Children’s Hospital after training in Chicago and working in New York. He also manages the transport team that delivers critical patients from West and South Texas. His wife Rachana is a nephrologist at the hospital.

Srivastava said he came to San Antonio excited to help establish the city’s first-ever children’s hospital where he can work with other pediatric specialists, former colleagues from the Baylor College of Medicine as well as new ones from the University of Texas Health Science Center which still operates several programs at the growing hospital. He was recruited by Pediatrician-in-Chief Dr. Mark Gilger.

Children's Hospital of San Antonio Pediatrician-In-Chief Dr. Mark Gilger.
Children’s Hospital of San Antonio Pediatrician-In-Chief Dr. Mark Gilger. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Gilger recently gave the Rivard Report a tour of the ground floor of the hospital, where renovations are 85% complete. A new, multi-story lobby facing west features contemporary furnishings and a peaceful, modern chapel as well as the Culinary Health Education for Families (CHEF) center – a nutritional science program that is the first of its kind in the country. It will be one of a network of teaching kitchens in the community along with programs at the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Club, the Botanical Garden and The Witte Museum.

CHEF (Culinary Health Education for Families) Program Director Maria Palma stands for a portrait in the Children's Hospital educational kitchen that is nearly complete.
CHEF (Culinary Health Education for Families) Program Director Maria Palma stands for a portrait in the Children’s Hospital educational kitchen that is nearly complete. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Through a wall of windows, the hospital’s lobby and second-story operating room waiting areas will eventually overlook a patio area with gardens and a playground set to open in late spring 2017. Also on the main floor, the hospital’s emergency department – the busiest in the city with over 70,000 visits a year, according to Gilger – has also been expanded to include rapid triage rooms and the new pediatric intensive care unit.

In the original, south-facing lobby, or “heritage lobby,” black-and-white photos of early years at the hospital and its founders, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, are still displayed. Inspiration for the renovation and interior designs came from the sisters as well as the San Antonio River, and the river theme flows virtually throughout the building. San Pedro Creek, slated for improvement, also runs close by.

Children's Hospital of San Antonio President Elias Neujahr sits in the Valero Energy Foundation Hematology/Oncology waiting area. Photo by Scott Ball.
Children’s Hospital of San Antonio President Elias Neujahr sits in the Valero Energy Foundation Hematology/Oncology waiting area. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Under the leadership of Children’s Hospital President Elias Neujahr, the expansion and renovation is a $155.9 million project – $110 million of which is funded by CHRISTUS Health, and $45.9 million by the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio Foundation – that has brought more than 200 new jobs to the city, many with higher wages.

There’s also a second phase of this growth taking shape. It will include the Children’s Hospital Heart Center, a hospital facility in Stone Oak and the New Braunfels Health Pavilions.

“One of the things that never existed in this city is a free-standing, not-for-profit, academic, comprehensive program,” Gilger said of the Children’s Hospital. “This is the one place in the city that you can get whatever you need done for your child.”

When Gilger first arrived in San Antonio in 2013 to begin recruiting faculty, his calls were met with skepticism, and his job was full of confrontation as the UTHSCA began to move out. Today, he said, the billboards promoting the hospital as “world class” make him proud and happy.

He cites achievements like the first bone marrow transplant conducted at the hospital three weeks ago, the arrival of subspecialists from all over the world, like a new cardiovascular surgeon from Argentina, and the creation of the maternal-fetal medicine center that will soon see its first delivery. Gilger is currently recruiting for an ophthalmology department at the hospital.

“When it comes to recruiting doctors to the city, most pediatric specialists like to be in a place that they know whoever runs pulmonary or GI or cardiology is as good as they are,” Gilger said. “It’s a very dynamic atmosphere here with high energy and people who are dedicated to caring for kids. It’s been a ton of work but the end result is terrific.”

When the U.S. News & World Report ranked the top children’s hospitals in the country in June, cities like Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, and Houston rose to the top, and one of the most widely-recognized hospitals – Boston’s Children’s Hospital – nabbed the top spot. The rankings were created from surveys of the best pediatric specialists and subspecialists in the country, and the hospitals that made the list were evaluated on clinical outcomes, efficient coordination of care, and sufficient care-related resources.

With that criteria, many would say that the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio is well on its way to earning this recognition – and more. As a city “on the rise” that continues to turn developer and CEO heads for its livability, and where the pediatric population is expected to grow 30% in the next 20 years, San Antonio may already be winning in more ways than one.

“It’s been very good here,” said Srivastava, the critical care doctor who was first attracted to the opportunity because of its affiliation with the prominent Baylor College of Medicine.

Doctor Srivastava Neeraj speaks with RN Melissa Feist-McCuistion regarding a patient update.
Dr. Neeraj Srivastava speaks with RN Melissa Feist-McCuistion regarding a patient update. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“It’s a very good family town. We live close by, and the traffic is not too bad. We live in the central part of the city so we can come downtown every day and also go north for other activities. My kids go to school here close by, so it’s very convenient. We’ve made a lot of friends in the city. And it’s a relatively diverse community.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.