When they move the hospital from downtown Princeton out to Route 1 in Plainsboro, how are we ever go to get there, especially during rush hour traffic?

That’s one of the questions they have been asking in Princeton for the last year or so, since the Medical Center at Princeton announced that it was planning to move from its crowded, nine-acre site in the heart of a residential neighborhood in Princeton Township. And that’s the question at least some people are beginning to ask in Plainsboro, where the hospital is applying for permission to develop a 300 to 400-bed “replacement hospital,” along with medical offices, an extended care facility, and continuing care retirement community, all on 158 acres that is now the home of FMC at the corner of Route 1 and Plainsboro Road.

I got asking myself the question in part because — in my alter ego as a reporter for the West Windsor-Plainsboro News — I covered an informal presentation the hospital people gave to the Plainsboro Planning Board this past Monday, December 4. And I also got thinking about the question because — on a dozen different occasions in the past few weeks — I have trekked off to the hospital to visit a good friend of mine who has been confined to a hospital bed for most of this fall.

When people raise concerns about getting through rush hour traffic to the hospital they are usually thinking about being in the ambulance, the ambulance stuck in a massive traffic tie-up, and their life fleeting away with every passing second.

But I have to say: It’s not just the emergency vehicles that need to get to the hospital; it’s the friends and family, as well, who are certainly critical to the care of the patients.

Everyone has their story: A family member in the hospital who is virtually ignored by the nursing staff at a critical time, but who is rescued by a quick-thinking visitor who summons assistance that otherwise might have been many minutes in coming. It’s now a provision of the Hippocratic Oath for Patients: Thou shall not leave a friend or loved one alone in a hospital. (Another provision of that oath: Thou shall never accept a doctor’s diagnosis without checking it out on the Internet.)

In the case of my friend, family members are far away and have their own medical problems that prevent regular visits. So a few of us try to pay a visit as often as possible. The other day my boys and I walked from our house in Princeton to Merwick, the rehabilitation and extended care center where our friend had been transferred.

For a half hour or so we assumed the role of private duty nurse: Refilling the water pitcher, sliding our patient higher up in the bed (a two-man job for us that some nurses amazingly can do by themselves), and listening to the observation, bordering on a complaint, that a doctor was supposed to visit but had not yet made his appearance. With that news I paid a visit to the nursing station. A few minutes later — and coincidentally, I am sure — a doctor appeared and offered a helpful explanation of my friend’s condition.

A few nights later my man at Merwick needed some more help. He had to get from his bed to the bathroom, a stretch of about 15 feet. He pushed the button to alert the nurses, and nothing happened. He pushed it a few more times with no results. An hour passed, he says. And then he did what any rational person would do: He picked up the phone and called for help. In this case he called another friend, who lives just a few blocks away. That friend rushed over on foot from his home, got to the room, and got our patient into the bathroom.

Now a word in defense of the nurses. They are no doubt understaffed and they are not paid nearly as much as they should to do things to total strangers that you and I would not do for a million dollars. And my friend the patient, reeling from various medicines, may have waited only 10 minutes instead of 60.

At the meeting in Plainsboro two residents spoke, both mentioning their concern about emergency access to the new hospital during rush hour traffic. Both mentioned jams on Route 1 at Plainsboro Road that held up traffic for 30 minutes. That’s funny, I thought. U.S. 1 has been tracking rush hour traffic on Route 1 for 20 years and our average times almost never exceed 30 minutes for the entire nine-mile stretch we survey. At the worst drivers may take seven or eight minutes to crawl from Scudders Mill Road to Plainsboro Road.

But seven or eight minutes in rush hour could seem like 30 minutes, just as 10 minutes without assistance at the hospital could seem like an hour. At the meeting Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu noted that a lot of improvements are planned for that section of Route 1 and the hospital’s interest in the FMC site could accelerate some of that work.

After the meeting I introduced myself to Barry Rabner, the medical center’s CEO, and told him that, given what I know about traffic on Route 1 and downtown Princeton, I would rather take my chance getting to the new location than the present location.

But for all the amenities they offer at the new hospital, with private rooms and nearly triple the parking, I hope they also make provisions for mass transit or jitney service to the site. And if I’m there at 11 o’clock at night and 10 minutes is feeling like one hour, I just hope one of my friends will answer the call and come to my rescue.

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