An operating room at Northern Maine Medical Center has new state of the art equipment. Credit: Courtesy of Northern Maine Medical Center

FORT KENT, Maine — A $13.6 million project at Maine’s northernmost hospital has modernized a facility that hasn’t seen major work in more than 70 years.

The recently completed four-story addition at Northern Maine Medical Center has two new operating rooms, a renovated laboratory, an activity area for children being treated in the behavioral health psychiatric unit and a modern cafeteria. It also includes private elevators to transport patients from the emergency room or obstetrics to operating rooms, rather than using the public elevators.

Northern Maine Medical Center CEO and President Peter Sirois during the unveiling of a new construction project at the hospital on May 6. This was Sirois’ last official act in the roles before retiring. Credit: Jessica Potila | St. John Valley Times

Major construction on the only hospital in St. John Valley has not occurred since it was first built in 1950. There are hospitals in central and southern Aroostook as well, but they are one and two hours away, respectively. NMMC is a small, rural hospital with 49 beds and more than 500 employees throughout a system that includes Forest Hill Rehab and Skilled Nursing Center and the Acadia Family Health Center, a primary care location in Madawaska. The independently owned and locally operated hospital has received multiple national awards.

If the hospital’s board of trustees had known what was coming, they might have held off on starting a multi-million-dollar construction project to improve the Fort Kent hospital in 2019.

“No one could have predicted that the largest and most devastating pandemic of modern time would fall right in the middle of our project,” CEO and President Peter Sirois said.

Expected to take 18 months to complete, the hospital renovation was extended to 4 years because the pandemic caused delays, and price of materials and timeline pressures, plus additional workload for the staff, board chairperson Don Guimond said.

In 1950, such buildings were constructed of concrete, while today steel is used for the major framework, according to Craig Piper of SMRT Architects and Engineers, who oversaw the hospital project.

A new cafeteria at Northern Maine Medical Center includes a lounge are where staff and visitors can relax. Credit: Jessica Potila | St. John Valley Times

Dr. Shahriar Anoushfar, who has worked at NMMC for five years, said the new operating room equipment is top of the line.

“This is really unmatched in any surrounding community,” Anoushfar said.

Gilbert Thibeault of Sheridan Construction based in Fairfield said he was always familiar with Northern Maine Medical Center because his family had a camp on Long Lake in the St. John Valley.

Thibeault said there were many moving parts to the project, but he is especially pleased with the outcome.

“I’m from The County, that’s what everybody says since they moved away. I know how important this facility is and it always has been, and it’s grown and that’s great to see,” Thibeault said.

The $13.6 million project was funded through a variety of sources, including bonds from Maine Health & Higher Educational Facilities Authority and a capital campaign that saw businesses and individual people in the St. John Valley community contribute $600,000.

Acadia Federal Credit Union provided the largest donation of $100,000 and as a result the new cafeteria has been named The Acadia Cafe.

Sirois, who has been at the hospital for more than 30 years, became emotional when he explained the unveiling of the construction project was his last official act as CEO before he retires. The audience responded with a standing ovation for his efforts to serve the hospital over the years.