ST. JOSEPH — Marilou Balsis has been involved in some pretty important operations during her 45 years in nursing, including 41 with Lakeland Health.

Her latest assignment, as clinical pavilion project director for the hospital’s $160 million construction project, is likely the biggest of all.

“I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” said Balsis during a tour Monday of the progress at the Lakeland Medical Center, St. Joseph campus.

But it has been a rewarding experience, she added, as she communicates with clinical teams to provide vital feedback and suggestions to the design and construction officials.

“We look for risks and search for solutions,” Balsis said.

Lakeland is erecting a five-story, 260,000 square-foot patient tower that will include new space for the surgical department, intensive care unit, the heart catheter lab and the endoscopy department, and a “main street” corridor that will better connect departments.

“This is what a quarter-million square feet of space looks like,” said Dr. Loren Hamel, president of Spectrum Health Lakeland, from the roof of the tower.

The hospital is replacing clinical areas that are between 35 and 60 years old, Hamel said. Having a facility that is “absolutely modern and up-to-date” is necessary for attracting young talent, and that improves health care for the region, he said.

Ground was broken in October 2016, and construction of the tower is expected to conclude before the end of the year. A gala event is planned for Nov. 2, with a celebration for employees later that month, and a Cornerstone Alliance after-hours business gathering Dec. 12. A grand opening will be scheduled for next year when the final phases of construction are done.

After the tower is completed, another 70,000 square feet of renovations will begin, with completion slated for 2020. Renovations of the emergency department have started, and the main entrance will be revamped, as well.

The project is on time and on budget, Hamel said.

The scope of the project is impressive. Daniel Bacchiocchi, director of Facilities Planning Design and Construction, said crews have moved enough dirt to fill eight high school football stadiums.

Hamel is equally excited about the attention to detail that most people wouldn’t notice, but will still benefit from, such as a flight of stairs.

“Most stairwells are built where it’s dark, they’re narrow and at the back of a building,” leading people to avoid them and use the elevators, Hamel pointed out. New staircases at Lakeland are at the front of the tower, “they are open and airy and invite people to take the steps” and get more exercise, Hamel said.

The critical care unit is being expanded from 7,000 to 26,000 square feet, with 18 rooms, instead of the current 12, Balsis said. “It will be a nice, beautiful space.”

The rooms will be around 350 square feet, with private bathrooms and space for family members.

“People get better more quickly with emotional support,” Hamel said.

The tower will have healing gardens on two levels, to encourage relaxation for patients and visitors, he noted. The healing garden on the first floor was funded by more than $300,000 in donations from Lakeland staff.

The size of the operating rooms is being increased, as well. A new laminar air flow ventilation system will make sure that no germs fall on the wounds of patients.

The air in the operating rooms will be completely changed every three minutes, which is 50 percent higher than what is required by code, Bacchiocchi said.

The hospital is using technology – from robotic surgery to 3D imaging and printing – that wasn’t available even a decade ago, Hamel said. One of the more impressive units is in the basement.

“This is Berrien County’s biggest ice cube factory,” Hamel said of the 24 chillers. They will make ice at night, when energy is cheaper, and will be used to cool the buildings during the day.

The Upton Conference Center is to be moved to the basement of the tower, with six rooms at 1,000 square feet each, and a capacity of 300 people. A two-tiered auditorium also is being built.

The cafeteria is being relocated to the lower level, as well. The Courtyard Cafe, now near the main entrance, will be relocated to the second floor of the tower, and will be twice the size of the current eatery.

All of this work has one purpose, Hamel said.

“The bottom line is, this is a place that saves lives, and we take that extremely seriously,” he said. The renovations, he said, provide a place that is respectful of patients and visitors, and that promotes healing and relaxation.

Contact:, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak