New chapel, garden spaces at Salem Hospital provide more space for waiting families

The busiest emergency department on the West Coast had a problem: its waiting room couldn’t accommodate all the family members, friends and loved ones coming in alongside patients.

Over 99,000 patients visited the Salem Hospital Emergency Department in 2021, according to the hospital. That’s an average of 272 people a day. Often, the heavy traffic led to guests sitting on the floor in the absence of available chairs.

In one case, a hospital volunteer saw children eating Cheetos off the same spot on the floor where someone’s water broke the week before.

“Of course, you clean it up and all of that, but it’s the whole concept of: when you only have so much space and people’s needs are so personal. I mean, you can’t break that family up if there’s only one place for them to go, they’re all going to be in there,” said Jim Bauer, Chief Development Officer at the Salem Health Foundation.

The squeeze prompted hospital leaders to ask what it could do to make waiting more comfortable and spacious for patients, family members and guests in the emergency department, while keeping families together.

Their solution was a respite garden and all-faith chapel space, which opened at the end of July. The addition completes the Salem Health Foundation’s $3.7 million Families Matter Project, a multiyear effort to improve patient and family reception to the Emergency Department.

The wood-paneled chapel space has two areas, one more formal that accommodates all-faith prayer, and another a quiet space to recharge minds and cell phones.

“This was after learning from people, some people might want to go in the chapel and they’re really not going in there to pray. They might be just going in there to think or reflect or be calm,” Bauer said. “So it’s kind of unique for a hospital chapel.”

Both sides of the chapel meet at the access door for the respite garden, which is adjacent to the patient drop-off area.

The garden has benches, a covered area and some greenery, with windows allowing users to see into the indoor emergency department waiting areas.

One part of Salem Hospital’s new chapel space is designed for families to relax (Courtesy/ Salem Health).

The spaces opened at the end of July after about a year of construction. Around that time, the hospital also unveiled a new $235 million patient tower that added 150 beds.

The emergency department is also easier to navigate now. The project included a new covered drop-off area that can handle multiple cars at once, and easier navigation from parking to the emergency department.

Recently, eight local credit unions announced their contribution of $63,000 to the Salem Health Foundation’s toward the respite chapel, according to a press release from the Northwest Credit Union Association. Bauer said car dealers in the area also came together to donate.

Because so many people use the emergency department, Bauer said the project will positively impact overall community health. 

“People ask me about the (return on investment) on this, when you’re out trying to talk to businesses about supporting this kind of thing,” he said. “The truth is that the number of people affected by this positively are in the millions.”

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.