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VCU Health, CVHCS and Sheltering Arms bring collaborative approach to care

A partnership among central Virginia’s titans of rehabilitation care continues to make patient success a priority through Sheltering Arms Institute.

Patient sits in a wheelchair while reviewing documents on a computer with a health care provider. After an acute care hospital stay, Jordan Smalls found Sheltering Arms Institute to help him regain movement in his arms and legs. (Sheltering Arms Institute)

By Eric Peters, Jackie Kruszewski and Sara McCloskey

Before 2020, physical rehabilitation beds at VCU Health were limited. If someone in Central Virginia suffered a spinal cord injury, they often had to travel hundreds of miles to Atlanta, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia to find the closest nationally recognized, comprehensive rehabilitation centers.

The distance wasn’t just a nightmare logistically for recently injured people and their families — it was a barrier to the best possible physical rehabilitation care for those who did not have the means to make such a long-distance, long-term journey.

These challenges could have been very real for Jordan Smalls, who on Labor Day 2021 was in a severe car accident. Emergency medical personnel thought he had died when they first responded to the scene. Smalls’ truck had flipped, and he had been ejected. Miraculously, he began breathing again and was transported to the hospital. After his acute care hospital stay, he needed to find an inpatient facility to begin regaining movement in his arms and legs.

“When I came in, I could not walk,” Smalls said. “A lot of days I just cried, and at night I couldn’t sleep.”

The ingredients needed to help people like Smalls and bring a nationally renowned inpatient rehabilitation hospital to Central Virginia all existed alongside one another right here in Richmond for decades.

By forming a partnership that prioritizes patient outcomes over competition, VCU and VCU Health, Sheltering Arms, and Central Virginia VA Health Care System (CVHCS, the local Veterans Affairs medical center) formed a facility which now serves the entire East Coast and beyond, matching or surpassing most of its peers across the country in patient outcomes and expertise.

Multiple patients are in a large room using equipment to help with improving strength and mobility with their health care providers.

Sheltering Arms Institute, a partnership between VCU Health and Sheltering Arms, is a 212,063-square-foot, 114-bed inpatient rehabilitation facility that has served more than 3,500 patients from 18 states. (Sheltering Arms Institute)

Collaboration over competition makes patient success a priority

More than a decade ago, these institutions began discussing and exploring how they could fit their individual pieces of the larger regional rehabilitation puzzle together to better serve the community. VCU and Sheltering Arms signed an agreement in 2016, and by June 2020, they opened a new rehabilitation hospital in Goochland — Sheltering Arms Institute.

Since opening, more than 4,200 patients from 18 states have received care at the Institute. Clinicians have also achieved functional outcomes for our patients that are in the top 12th percentile nationally, according to Alan Lombardo, CEO of Sheltering Arms Institute.

“We are the preferred site of rehabilitation care for spinal cord injury, brain injury and stroke patients,” Lombardo said. “Additionally, we are able to care for patients who have had organ transplants, severe burn injuries, polytrauma and utilize ventilators.”

There are four units in the hospital to support the variety of its patients’ needs, including a 9,251-square-foot main therapy gym and three satellite gyms equipped with everything from full-body assistive devices to fine motor skill development tools. Patient rooms are single-occupancy and are designed to be a “home away from home,” while maintaining the functionality of a traditional hospital room. The thorough planning and technology have made a difference for patients like Smalls, who fortunately found Sheltering Arms Institute after his car accident and acute care hospital stay.

When he first arrived, Smalls could not walk.

“It is very hard to cope with this,” Smalls said. “I feel some sense of hope, but it’s really hard. Don’t ever get in your head that you want to give up. Keep on fighting, because every day you’re going to get better, and this hospital really helps you get better.”

For more of the history of Sheltering Arms Institute and patient success stories, read the original version of this story published in the summer 2022 issue of NEXT magazine.

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