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January 7, 2014

Happiness without Babe Ruth

In many cities, it doesn’t take big sports names for the calendar to be busy and the stadiums kept full. The calendars are so packed with other athletic events that LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter are hardly missed. We scanned the map in search of happy Minor League havens and selected four good examples: Spokane, Wash.; Norfolk, Va.; Providence, R.I.; and Montgomery, Ala.

360 DEGREES OF HISTORY
Montgomery, Ala.

There’s a special street corner in Montgomery where all the major aspects of city history come into view.

Standing at the venerable Court Square Fountain, built atop an artesian basin in 1885, a history buff can view the important buildings involved in the city’s most notable upheavals. As Meg Lewis at the Convention & Visitor Bureau puts it, "There’s no other place in the world where you can stand on one street and see 360 degrees of (Civil War and) civil rights history."

Straight ahead at the end of Bainbridge Street sits the state capitol where Jefferson Davis stood in February 1861 to take the oath of office as the Confederacy’s first president. (Montgomery was the capital for a short time before Richmond took its place.) South of the fountain is the Winter Building, where the telegram proclaiming the start of the war was sent. A block south is the first White House of the Confederacy.

Just a block before the capitol building is the now-named Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the first pastoral assignment of Martin Luther King and the starting point for many civil rights activities. One block south of the church, though out of sight from the fountain, two "newcomers" enhance the scene: the flat black marble Civil Rights Memorial fountain and, behind it, the new Civil Rights Memorial Center. Exhibits there include the stories of 40 activists who lost their lives between 1955 and 1968. Two blocks south on Court Street is the Greyhound station where Freedom Riders got off the bus on May 20, 1961.

And - somewhat visible on the street behind the fountain - is the Rosa L. Parks Library and Museum, built at the spot where Parks got off the bus after her defiant ride.

Though these monuments can conjure painful memories for them, capital city residents recognize their significance. But they’ve also moved on to create an atmosphere that’s brought the city into modern times.

Downtown Montgomery’s Riverfront Park includes an ampitheater, splash pad, riverboat and the Riverfront Stadium, home to the Tampa Bay Rays’ AA team, the Montgomery Biscuits.

Mobile native Brian Richardson, M.D., accepted a urology position in 2011 with the Jackson Clinic, affiliated with Jackson Hospital, following a University of Florida internship at Shands Hospital in Gainesville and surgical training as chief resident at Tulane University in New Orleans. He specializes in minimally invasive urologic surgery using state-of-the-art robotic, laparoscopic, percutaneous and endourologic techniques. "One of the best things about working here," he says, "is the very close community of urologists. They provide top-notch care, and there’s a nice collegial atmosphere. We share information and get along very well, even when we have no financial ties."

At Jackson, "state-of-the-art" isn’t confined to urology. Founded by a group of local physicians in 1946, it’s been steadfast in adopting new methods and technology. Most recently, it became the region’s sole provider of scarless robotic gallbladder surgery. This followed the installation of the STERIS Corporation integrated operating room and the new daVinci SiTM system. Five years ago, the hospital took the local lead with this center for robotic and minimally invasive procedures and now has the most comprehensive area program. The STERIS partnership has been fruitful for both parties. With a large manufacturing facility in Montgomery, the company has been able to show Jackson’s equipment to sales prospects from other cities.

The hospital has added another neurosurgeon to its staff for state-of-the-art minimally invasive spine procedures in two I-suites complete with new equipment. Thanks to these and other upgrades, spokesman Peter Frohmader notes the hospital "has all the services that would be found in a medium-sized community. The only things you need to leave Montgomery for are transplants and experimental procedures."

In the meantime, the city’s two Baptist Medical Centers - East and South - have been preparing for the future by incorporating new methods to shorten treatment and recuperating times as well as introducing a wide range of wellness programs - and working to help patients reduce risks of illness and disease by teaching them to live healthier lives.

The city itself surprised Richardson. "We used to drive through Montgomery but never (spent time) here," he remembers. "When I actually got here, I really was impressed with the growth of the city and the kind of direction (it was going in), as well as the vision of city leaders. It’s a much different city than it used to be."

He soon discovered that fact when hospital representatives took him on a pre-arrival tour. "They showed me around several places and the nice neighborhoods. But when they showed me the downtown, I said, ’Well, my decision’s already made. I’m moving downtown when I get here.’" He lives in a top-floor loft apartment with a balcony.

The downtown trend is likely to continue, he says, citing plans circulating for about 200 to 300 new condos in the next three years. "Now people are actually staying and enjoying the things that are going on down here." Besides "all the good restaurants, there’s a performing arts center with concerts almost every weekend - and not by groups you’ve never heard of." Adding to the congenial ambience, "There’s live music downtown literally seven days a week, both inside and outside, including bands in bars."

Downtown is even a convenient location for some of the city’s sports events. The Tampa Bay Rays’ AA baseball team, the Montgomery Biscuits, plays at Riverwalk Stadium, once the site of a Confederate prison. If only those old prisoners could have known that the new land occupant would be rated among the top five best food arenas.

The stadium is only one of several recreational facilities in the park along the Alabama River. Among them are an amphitheater, the River Skate Park for skateboarders and bikers, and even a new Bark Park for canine recreation.

In fact, the city is inundated with sports events and opportunities, played at a large variety of arenas and outdoor complexes. There are kickball and softball leagues, as well as high school and college basketball games. A new YMCA soccer complex boasts eight fields. Tennis courts abound, and an annual highlight is the Blue Gray Tennis Tournament for college athletes.

Plus private and public golf courses. In fact, even a Robert Trent Jones course is a mere 10-minute drive away for Richardson.

Besides sports, new efforts are in progress to encourage healthier eating and to spark inquisitive minds. E.A.T South is a program in which participants establish urban gardens and learn how to prepare southern foods in much healthier ways. That includes starting school gardens and lobbying with school cafeteria managers to serve meals prepared from the crops.

Soon to come is Questplex, a dramatic new hub for learning, as promoters describe it. In the "all-purpose learning center," people of all ages will explore nature, learn new career skills and participate in brainstorming exercises, complete with interactive technology "to customize the experience for each visitor." The guiding force: "Children can be inspired for a lifetime of learning." It’s hard to think of a more important goal.

The Creative Capital
Providence, R.I.

Strictly speaking, Providence is bereft of Class A renowned sports teams. But for residents, that’s a mere matter of opinion. "We’re closer to Gillette Stadium than Boston," says Kristen Adamo at the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. "So we like to think of the Patriots as our team, too."

Not only that. "New England" is an unwittingly apt title for the Patriots, because they help add greatly to the coffers in Rhode Island. Adds Adamo, "Their opponents - and the media - stay in the Providence area because it’s cheaper. And it’s wonderful when the Patriots make the playoffs. The economic benefits are terrific!"

"There are lots of Patriots fans around here, and sometimes they offer to take me to a game," says Louis Rice, M.D. "But the games are usually in December, and it’s too cold." Having moved to Providence from Cleveland three years ago, Rice also says, "I’m still a suffering Cleveland Browns fan." As for baseball? "I was a Red Sox fan when I was in college (Harvard), but I was so disappointed the year that the Yankees beat them in the playoff game." In Cleveland, the Indians became his baseball team of choice.

Now once again he’s caught in a love-hate situation. "I played football in college. My oldest son is a 2010 Yale graduate. He was a catcher on the baseball team, but now he coaches linebackers on the Yale football team. Bottom line: "It’s always difficult rooting for Yale."

Nevertheless, for true Patriots fans, transportation is super-convenient, Adamo points out. "The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority runs trains from the airport in nearby Warwick to the stadium, and there’s also a Massachusetts subway system." And: "The Pawtucket Red Sox are five minutes away."

For Adamo, this accessibility is a great asset. "That’s the beauty of Rhode Island," she says. "It’s such a compact state that it’s easy to get from place to place."

Providence, R.I., attracted Louis Rice, M.D., with a great job opportunity­ - and the added bonus of being close to the ocean in a beautiful location. As for sports? "I’m still a suffering Cleveland Browns fan," Rice says.

Rice couldn’t agree more. "Cleveland was a great place to live," he says, "but there weren’t a whole lot of beautiful places nearby," a contrast underscored when he and his wife decided to explore their new home area. "Going over that beautiful bridge to Newport, we couldn’t believe it was only 40 minutes away from Providence." Even more important for Rice is the "real privilege" of being close to the ocean after 20 years in Cleveland, Lake Erie notwithstanding. In a way it was a homecoming because of his childhood years between New York and Boston, followed by college in Cambridge, medical education at Columbia University and a series of fellowships in Boston.

Closeness is a key word for those whose sports interests go beyond the Patriots. Cheering fans flock to the newly refurbished Dunkin’ Donuts Center to watch the Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League and the Providence College Friars as they take on Division I basketball opponents. "The Dunk" is also a concert and large-event venue. In the great outdoors, Brown University football and Bryant University lacrosse can also boast big attendances.

There’s also an impressive lineup of other sports, spectator and participatory, and some more exotic than others, including the Rhode Island Rebellion (rugby), the Roller Derby (roller skating) and bocce ball, with teams sponsored by local businesses. There’s a Rock ’n Roll Providence half marathon, plus road races and ice skating at the Bank of America Center. And sailing along a seemingly endless coastline.

Rice was chief of the medical service at the VA Medical Center in Cleveland when he was offered "new challenges" in Providence - positions as physician-in-chief with Rhode Island and Miriam Hospitals, as well as executive physician-in-chief at three other hospitals. He’s also a professor of medicine at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School. Rhode Island Hospital is the school’s principal teaching hospital and is one of three acute care Providence facilities of Lifespan, the state’s largest health care system. One is Hasbro Children’s Hospital, which is incorporated within Rhode Island Hospital, and The Miriam Hospital is the third. There are three other acute care institutions in the city.

Lifespan’s two "adult" hospitals are working hard to cut costs by merging key programs such as cardiac services, orthopedics and bariatric surgery. For instance, all open-heart surgery is now performed at Rhode Island. A newly created Total Joint Center is located at The Miriam. To ensure that more patients keep up with medications, Lifespan has opened an on-site pharmacy at RIH to dispense prescriptions and, for the general public, to provide adult vaccinations. Ambulatory care centers have been set up around the state and include lab testing, checks on implantable devices and, coming soon, infusion facilities for cancer patients. The impetus for the centers, as spokesperson Ellen Slingsby explains it: "We’re going from a hospital system to a health care system with a focus on making care more convenient for our patients."

Roger Williams Medical Center, named for the revered founder of the state, is one of two member hospitals of CharterCARE Health Partners. The two institutions have been promoting collaboration, especially in efforts to reduce costs, strengthen core services, add new ones and increase patient access. Among most recent initiatives has been geriatric-specific training for all staff members, with special emphasis on safer and more agreeable surroundings for patients, such as non-skid floors, portable hearing aids, magnifying devices and soft music.

The presence of Brown University and four other higher learning institutions is bound to influence local culture, which Rice suspects has something to do with "the terrific theater here for reasonable prices."

With all the culture to experience in Providence, there’s still a sports-related goal on Rice’s "to do" list: "My hope is to turn a not-very-good golf game into a reasonable game."

With the city’s considerable number of courses, that seems like a reasonable plan.

Dynamo of the Inland Northwest
Spokane, Wash.

’’Sports don’t just entertain. They improve communities. They drive economies." Thus sayeth the sages from the Spokane Sports Commission, a dedicated organization that recruits and often manages athletic tournaments, nurtures a mind-boggling array of local sports activities and lobbies for more sports venues. "And it’s not all about (Major League) baseball, basketball and football," says Eric Sawyer, the commission’s CEO.

Think sellouts like NCAA tournaments and figure skating events. Consider 100,000 players in Hoopfest, the world’s largest three-on-three basketball tournament; Bloomsday, the U.S.’ largest timed road race; a dual lane roller derby, and - one of Sawyer’s favorites - the National Blind Bowlers Championship. "We encourage any ’adaptive sports,’ such as wheelchair events and almost any competition with opportunities for the handicapped," he says.

Other options include the Spokane Indians (baseball), Shock (arena football), Shine (soccer) and Chiefs (junior ice hockey). The Indians, a short-season single-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers, consistently fill their 6,800-seat stadium. The list of spectator and participatory sports goes on and on: volleyball, gymnastics, wrestling, boxing, figure skating, polo, table tennis, Ultimate Frisbee, chess…. Then add college sports at Gonzaga University, Washington State University Spokane and Whitworth University.

Not enough? Try the volleyball Border Smackdown for U.S. and Canadian boys; the eight bike races in the Lilac City Twilight Criterium; the Citizens Ragtag Rally, welcoming "every kind of bike"; and the Dirty Dash, a mud course obstacle race.

Little wonder that Outside magazine has cited Spokane as "one of the most active cities in the U.S."

Less publicized is the economic advantage of sports tournaments. In Spokane, the related hotel income alone is $30 to $40 million a year.

After moving to the city two years ago, Anna Barber, M.D., quickly became immersed in the Bloomsday race and was definitely impressed by the number of participants - 50,000. She and her perinatologist husband couldn’t resist watching the horde of young participants at Hoopfest, either. "They shut down downtown and turn it all into 3-on-3 basketball courts," she says. They’ve also taken in baseball games, and have cheered on the Gonzaga hoopsters at least once even though, she says, "It’s ridiculously hard to get tickets."

The original goal for the Doctors Barber was to locate to a big city - but not too big - conveniently located near where they grew up: She in Seattle and he in Great Falls, Mont. She had graduated from the University of Washington School of Medicine and finished her residency at the University of California - Davis, then hired on for four years as a general pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente.

But for more permanent job placements, Spokane became the obvious solution. Two years ago, she signed on as a pediatrician working out of Providence Holy Family Hospital, one of four vicinity facilities in the Providence Health & Services group.

Though the sports lineup is massively impressive, it’s hardly the only act in town. According to chamber of commerce Greater Spokane Inc., the city has been "the state’s primary inland distribution center and transportation hub since 1881." It also holds its own as a center of medical care, shopping and entertainment. Today’s corporate mix includes health-related companies such as Signature Genomics Laboratories, Jubilant HollisterStier and Applied Science Laboratories.

There’s another less-noted plus, according to Wendy Smith at Greater Spokane, Inc. The city has been ranked America’s sixth geographically safest city by the data analyst Sperling’s Best Places. There are no tornados, nor hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, drought or hailstorms.

Health care is no small part of the mix. Providence Health Care is now the major medical presence and a top employer in Spokane. A second large medical presence is the Rockwood Health System, with its Deaconess and Valley Hospitals. Spokane is also one of 22 U.S. locations of the Shriners Hospitals for Children.

Founded with 29 beds in 1896, Deaconess has grown to 388 beds and offers exclusive care as a bariatric surgery center, certified chest pain center and accredited stroke pain center. Valley Hospital, founded more recently (1969) by 14 physicians and located in the nearby city of Spokane Valley, was the first area facility to be accredited for joint, hip and knee surgery. Recently, the hospital was the sole recipient in northwest Washington of an "A" grade for quality and safety from the Leapfrog Group.

Most recently, the Providence group has made strong efforts to collaborate with "like-minded organizations to advance health care access, affordability and excellence." In May it signed a memorandum of understanding with two other groups to form a regional cancer alliance that can coordinate services and information, resulting in the most modern care available. A Surgical Plus program has added to its minimally invasive capabilities, enabling better and safer results from neurological procedures. Other recent and projected services include an emergency department expansion, upgraded maternity services and a pain management clinic.

However, the current local medical highlight is the August consolidation of Washington State University’s School of Medicine on its Spokane campus. Now medical students can complete all four years there. WSU Spokane plans to create a comprehensive health sciences curriculum that will include colleges of pharmacy and nursing, public health and health policy and a collaborative dental program. "This is all part of our attempt to create an urban research campus using medicine as a jumping-off point," says spokesman Doug Nadvornick. Equally important: "There are currently 70 medical residency slots in Spokane. One of our (other) big issues is the need to create new opportunities. We’d like to keep (those doctors) here."

Those who do stay get 260 days of sunshine­­ - conducive to any outdoor sports they’d like to try on their own.

Nautical - And Then Some
Norfolk, Va.

With the U.S.’ largest Naval base - not to mention shipbuilding, shipping and cruise businesses - water-related breadwinners create an impressive percentage of residents. The five-city Coastal Virginia region (including Norfolk) is also one of the top five U.S. retirement havens for veterans.

The story of Coastal Virginia is "the story of water," says Sarah Martin Lampert, development vice president at the area Chamber of Commerce. It’s hard to deny.

The Virginia Port Authority continues to move toward its goal to handle the greatest shipping tonnage on the East Coast, especially promoting its ability to handle deep-draft containers.

Water proximity also played a role in the decision by Aaron Bleznak, M.D., to relocate to the Coastal Virginia region, although the job was his main lure. A specialist in breast surgery and surgical oncology, he’s now vice president and senior medical director with the Sentara Medical Group, a division of Sentara Healthcare. His responsibility covers all seven Sentara hospitals in the Coastal Virginia area, but he’s headquartered in Norfolk, where Sentara Norfolk General Hospital is located. The job enticement was the opportunity to combine an administrative role over hospital-based physicians with a clinical role. Previously, in Lehigh, Pa., his administrative role as vice chair of surgery was confined to supervising surgeons only.

The water-related consideration in his relocation choice was his calculation that a shore ambience would be a more enticing place for his four children, as adults, to visit. Also with the offspring in mind, he and his wife chose to live in nearby Virginia Beach. "My youngest daughter is an equestrian, and that’s where we keep her horse," he says.

Another plus for Bleznak: "There’s more sunshine here, and   we can be out of doors more," including on the nearby beach. It’s also a better place for people with allergies, he says.

Sometimes the out of doors involves viewing the Norfolk Tides, a farm team of the Baltimore Orioles. But Bleznak is selective. "We’re Philly fans, so we go (to the stadium) when the Lehigh Valley IronPigs come in." Ditto for the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League. Bleznak holds out for the Phantoms, the Philadelphia Flyers farm team.

Other residents can find good sports alternatives to the major leagues. Says Alan Boring, Norfolk’s business development manager, "If you like baseball, hockey, basketball, football, soccer…you’ve got it."

Old Dominion University fields a very popular men’s basketball team, and its Division I football games have sold out every home game. "The oceanfront," he adds, "is just 15 minutes away, with beach volleyball, surfing and beach marathons." Or just plain swimming, relaxing and watching giant ships coming into port.

Nautical history buffs should be prepared to spend hours - and hours - in two area museums, plus a tour of Battleship Wisconsin anchored alongside the exhibit-filled Nauticus National Maritime Center, and harbor cruises take passengers past other ships and unloading piers for huge commercial cargos. According to one tour guide, "It’s said that all the ships in the world could anchor there and still leave room for more." A few miles north, in Newport News, is the spectacular Mariners’ Museum, cited as one of the world’s largest of kind.

But when it comes to well-being, most Norfolk residents feel more reassured by the presence of the city’s four acute care hospitals. Under Sentara’s aegis are two acute care facilities - Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and Sentara Leigh Hospital. The mix also includes the specialty Sentara Heart Hospital, as well as several subsidiary facilities.

Norfolk General was founded as the 25-bed Retreat for the Sick in 1888. Almost a century later, its modern-day facility was the setting for the birth of America’s first in-vitro baby.

As of today, its surgeons have checked off more than 2,200 heart, kidney, pancreas and kidney/pancreas transplants and saved hundreds of lives because of its eICU remote monitoring capability. It was the region’s first magnet hospital, recognizing its quality care, nursing care and innovation - and first in the U.S. to fully deploy and independently test the intensive care management system.

Its full-service maternity pavilion is a mere down-the-hall walk from the NICU in the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters. The two hospitals are physically linked but part of separate corporations. Its modern version is still the only freestanding facility of kind in Virginia. Not only is it connected to Sentara Norfolk General, but, says marketing/public relations manager Sharon Cindrich, "Our physicians and surgeons can go over to Sentara to check on babies, if needed."

With a network of 109 pediatricians, Cindrich says, "We’re constantly innovating and updating." Physicians in Cancer and Blood Disorders Center follow hundreds of patients with cancer, sickle cell and coagulation disorders, but its worldwide attention-getter has been a minimally invasive surgical technique devised by Donald Nuss, M.D., to repair chest wall deformities.

On the lighter side is the Buddy Brigade, organized in 2005. Volunteers bring dozens of dogs, reports Cindrich, "in every size and breed and age" to cheer bedridden patients.

"It’s wonderful and highly appealing to the folks here," she says.

Norfolk’s Bon Secours DePaul Medical Center dates to 1855 when nuns went door-to-door treating yellow fever victims. Fast forward to 2013 and a Catholic health system with 19 acute-care hospitals and other facilities in six states. Among its notable state-of-the-art services are its hyperbaric and neurovascular centers and the region’s only Midwifery Birth Center, complete with private family rooms and queen-sized beds, plus Jacuzzis for relaxation during labor.

An important medically related source of pride for Norfolk residents - and hospital personnel - is the Eastern Virginia Medical School, which opened in 1973 with a student body of 23. In 2013, there were 332 graduates, about half from its companion School of Medical Health Professions composed of 11 nationally recognized disciplines. Its first building was completed in 1978.

There are 10 today, with a full- and part-time faculty of 461, complemented by 1,387 volunteer teaching physicians. As an aside to the benefits of producing so many valuable graduates, the 2012 economic impact for the community was $824 million, equivalent to $1 billion in good economic times. The local Economics Club cited the school as "one of the region’s most powerful economic engines." And that’s no old seaman’s tale.

Eileen Lockwood is a frequent contributor to PracticeLink Magazine.



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