St. Mary's Hospital put its patient-focused, staff-efficient design philosophy to the test last week with the opening of a just-completed third floor designated for medical, surgical or intensive care patients.

A ribbon-cutting by county commissioners and hospital leaders Tuesday morning in Leonardtown was the culmination of the first phase in a multiyear, $24.6 million renovation and expansion project.

The ceremonial respite was brief for hospital staff, who spent last weekend and Monday preparing for the move upstairs. Equipment was checked. Rooms were cleaned. Patients were wheeled to a bustling third floor, leaving the deserted second floor eerily quiet.

At the height of the activity Monday afternoon, Chief Operating Officer Peggy Naleppa said administrators were aiming for perfection.

"We treat this as if we were moving into our own home," she said.

A homey atmosphere is just the environment the medical staff wanted to create through the hospital's second expansion since its founding in 1983. The latest project won't increase the hospital's 107-bed capacity, but administrators said patients should notice a roomier, more private setting.

Gone are the shared rooms, where only a curtain separated two patients and multiple families squeezed into a tight space during visiting hours.

On the new floor, patients have individual rooms with cable TV and their own stock of clean towels. A love seat by the window folds out easily into a bed where a family member can rest for the night. A small wall shelf is a spot for flower vases, and a bulletin board hangs nearby for get-well cards and children's artwork.

Larger waiting areas and new snack centers provide more comfort for families, while nurses have satellite work stations with window views into patient rooms for improved response time.

Locked supply cabinets in the 34 new rooms now provide nurses with all the materials they once had to leave the room -- and the patient -- to retrieve. They also have a dry erase board to write messages for other staff members regarding a patient's needs.

"Everything is right there at their fingertips," said Marie Tarleton, director of the Intensive Care Unit.

The hospital also is introducing the latest technology to keep doctors and nurses in closer contact with patients. Nurses will wear beepers that notify them immediately when a patient's heart rhythm is abnormal and will carry digital phones so patients can call them directly rather than going through a nurse's station.

St. Mary's Hospital's renovation and expansion project puts it in step with hospitals around the region and nation, which are working to keep up with a growing demand and aging facilities. According to hospital figures, emergency visits in St. Mary's County have increased 43 percent during the past five years.

The project involves adding 96,000 square feet and renovating about 38,000 square feet to provide for the county's projected population growth up to 2010. The county government sold $20 million in bonds last January on behalf of the hospital, which will pay back the money over 20 years.

This week will bring more shuffling and more construction noise as the hospital shifts into another phase, said Frank Fearns, head of special projects. The revamped emergency department on the first floor will open with doubled square footage, eight more beds and single rooms with sliding glass doors.

It eventually will include five "fast track" beds, designed to expedite those with minimal care needs, Naleppa said.

"It meets a community need," she said, such as when parents seek medical attention for a child whose physician isn't available on the weekend. "They need urgent care, but not emergency care."

Construction workers will knock out walls next week for a wider second floor, expected to be completed by late summer. This floor will feature a family-oriented birthing center -- with a large nursery, a whirlpool bath room and spacious birthing and postpartum rooms -- and a comprehensive women's health center.

Administrators expect construction throughout the hospital to wrap up by October.

Registered technician Rebecca Skipworth, left, helps guide a patient bed into one of the new rooms at St. Mary's Hospital with the help of Intensive Care Unit Director Marie Tarleton, center, and registered nurse Stephanie Dallaire.