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Highlands Hospital to breathe new life into Zachariah Connell Elementary School


The Connellsville School District evaluated the feasibility of maintaining or redesigning the Zachariah Connell Elementary School and decided it was time for them to exit the building. Connellsville’s Highlands Hospital began their evaluation of the building and after considerable due diligence, decided to embark upon a creative re-use of the old school. Because the hospital is not a large nonprofit corporation, the challenge of taking on a project like this was one of economics. Where would the money come from that would allow the building to be completely retrofitted and creatively redesigned?  It was true the bones of the building were good, but the work required to refurbish and redesign would be substantial. 

The variances for the school allow Highlands Hospital to turn Zachariah Connell Elementary School, into a health care center, which will include centers for autism, health impact for women, and a blended-care model that includes behavioral health, women’s health and primary care.

“There’s going to really be three projects within the building,” said Chief Executive Officer John Andursky – the first is the expansion of the Highlands Hospital Regional Center for Autism.  Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield provided a grant towards the Regional Center for Autism school project.  Students attending Highlands Hospital Regional Center for Autism receive services in all areas of their academics, functional living skills, communication, socialization and behavior.  Additionally, it was the first licensed site for Cleveland Clinic Children’s Autism Center. The new location will allow the school to literally double in size. 

The second project is the Women’s Center for Health Impact, and the third is a Blended Care Model.  The Women’s Center for Health Impact was made possible in part by a grant from Governor Tom Wolf with the assistance of Senator Pat Stefano.  The Blended Care Model was made possible through a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The new Women’s Center for Health Impact will include all aspects of women’s care.  This would be an all-inclusive practice that embraces and includes comprehensive women’s health services which have been very limited in the region.  In addition, women in Fayette County have higher incidences of chronic illnesses, domestic abuse, and inadequate resources.  It is important to consider all the issues women face and to develop a strategic plan that identifies a comprehensive list of needs, resources available or lacking, ways to prioritize identified needs, and strategies for implementation. The Women’s Center for Health Impact will place a key emphasis on breast health, gynecology, nutritional counseling, mental health, and holistic wellness services.  According to the hospital’s Director of Development, Vicki Meier, Highlands’ goal is to help women improve their overall health physically, mentally, emotionally, economically, and spiritually.

In addition, Highlands Hospital has been selected to participate in the Clinical Breast Care Project funded by the Department of Defense at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at Bethesda which would be moved to the new blended women’s center.  Women with a history of breast cancer, who have a high risk for breast cancer, or who currently are valiantly fighting breast cancer may be involved in the study.

The purpose of this study is to identify gene marker and protein expression changes that may be associated with the onset and progression of breast disease and possible breast cancer.  By carefully examining blood samples from many different breast conditions and from non-breast disease patients, we hope to improve our understanding of the causes and best treatments for breast disease.  Another purpose is to correlate patient clinical information with the results of these laboratory studies.

For this study, the Principle Investigator is Robert Yakulis, M.D. and the Research Protocol Coordinator is Erin Fronczek, MT (ASCP), and Director of Laboratory Services.  Blood samples from participants will be collected, frozen, and sent to the former Windber Research Institute now called Chan Soon-Shiong Institute for Molecular Medicine Windber which was started in 2000 by Connellsville native Nick Jacobs, FACHE. 

Another program known as I M Well (Integrative Medicine – Women Excelling Living Life) will continue in some manner at the new location.  This program has been in existence for almost two years and was sponsored in part by the Highmark Foundation.  It was designed for women in the community, and it focuses on three domains of wellness: nutritional health, physical health and mental health.  The long-term goals are to decrease the risk of chronic illnesses, decrease unnecessary Emergency Department visits and decrease medication overuse which would increase the number of productive, strong, healthy women. 

For generations, Highlands Hospital has been a pillar of care and an economic center for the region.  Since its inception, it has been a place for birth, a place for healing, a recovery center, and a center for emergency medicine. With the addition of the new center at the former Zachariah Connell Elementary School, Highlands Hospital’s future continues to look strong.  As the local area continues to grow, the staff and board of Highlands Hospial are committed to providing enhanced medical care, more skilled jobs, and increasing community outreach to help our community members lead longer, stronger, healthier lives.  For more information on how you can support the mission of the hospital, visit www.highlandshospital.org.



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