Dr. Cohen

In the old pediatric oncology area, medical director Dr. Kenneth Cohen watches the preparations for moving patients. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / April 29, 2012)

At the ding of a cowbell Sunday, staffers in a command center at the Johns Hopkins Hospital began clapping and yelling out victory cheers.

Another department had begun to transfer patients as part of a massive move from Hopkins' aging hospital building to a towering $1.1 billion facility next door. The complicated process, which centered on the delicate task of relocating sick patients, was running according to plan.

The official opening Tuesday of the two 12-story towers will mark the final step in the largest hospital project in Maryland history. The facility, in the works since the 1990s, will change the way Hopkins practices medicine, with innovations that officials said will improve patient care and allow for the latest surgical techniques.

The new structure will even affect the way visitors move through the hospital, as a larger number of elevators means patients and visitors will no longer have to share. That was one of many inconveniences that patients and staff dealt with in the old complex, built in the 1930s and 1950s.

"Our new home represents our vision for health care," Edward Miller, dean and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, said in a statement. "It has the space and technology to match our researchers' scientific knowledge, our faculty's acumen and our staff's medical skills, but it also adds the patient experience as the fourth critical dimension in this equilibrium."

Construction of the 1.6 million-square-foot facility with 560 private rooms was a five-year undertaking. The move of nearly 350 patients, which will be completed Monday, required similar precision in planning and execution. Over two years, staff took training courses and participated in several mock runs, with volunteers playing patients, to prepare for the real event.

At about 1 p.m., 14-year-old Brooke Shockley began her journey from the pediatric oncology unit on the eighth floor of the old building to a room on the 11th level in one of the towers. The Salisbury resident, who is being treated for bone cancer, said Sunday was the first time she actually looked forward to being in the hospital. Her old room looked out onto a brick wall; now, she'll be able to take in the Baltimore skyline.

After snaking through corridors connecting the buildings, Brooke arrived at the new unit to applause from staff members. Her hospital bed was wheeled over to her room, where a gold ribbon had been stretched across the door, adorned with purple bows. "Welcome Brooke and family!" it announced.

As she looked on, her mother, Tammy West, cut the ribbon.

Inside was a TV that will let Brooke connect to Facebook and Netflix. The room also has cubbyholes that she likes. And there was also the view of Baltimore she had been promised, extending from the Key Bridge to the towers of Harbor East.

"Oh, my God. Wow, that is amazing," she said as nurses moved her hospital bed so she could gaze out the window.

"I just think of being in a peaceful place," Brooke said. "Like, if I was having chemo and I could look at this all day, I probably would not mind it as much, because of how great that looks. It kind of takes me to a peaceful place and clears my mind a little bit."

Nearly 2,500 workers will have played a part in the two-day move when it's completed.

At the command center Sunday, which is the heart of the operation, more than a dozen employees sat around a U-shaped table cluttered with laptop computers, two-way radios, coffee cups and a large box of Advil liqui-gels. A group at a back table chronicled the day's events on Twitter.

"We're really watching almost patient by patient, making sure that there are no problems along the way," said Ted Chambers, co-leader of the transition and administrator of the children's center. "It's been running perfectly smoothly right now."

Four flat-screen TVs at the front of the room tracked patients' progress, while a larger screen documented the big picture — the relocation status of a dozen departments, ranging from pediatric emergency to cardiovascular progressive care.

Just after 12:30, nurse Sherri Jones rang the cowbell to celebrate word that the first patient had left the medical ICU. On the television monitors, a box with the patient's room number changed to periwinkle. A second box with the new room number would turn to yellow once the patient arrived.

Moving sick patients is no new task to nurses and other staff at the hospital, said Robin Hunt, a Hopkins official managing the move. Every day, patients are moved to other parts of the hospital for X-rays, surgeries or other procedures.

But coordinating the move of so many at one time takes extensive planning and practice, she said. Patient safety is always the first priority. Emergency equipment was set up along the routes patients would travel to the new building; doctors were also on hand for emergencies.