On June 14, 1967, seven prematurely born infants arrived in cardboard cradles as tiny ambassadors in perhaps the crowning civil rights achievement in the history of Wilmington, N.C.
They were the first patients of the newly opened New Hanover Memorial Hospital. During a turbulent period of civil rights in this nation’s history, their arrival marked the merger, in a small city in the Deep South, of a black and white hospital – without protest, riot or bloodshed. For the first time, the county’s hospital treated everyone, regardless of race, creed, national origin or ability to pay.
But the opening of what is today known as New Hanover Regional Medical Center was not without difficulty and controversy, a trait it shares with the overall history of health and healing in southeastern North Carolina. That history, also marked by outstanding achievement and innovation, is as much about war, politics, race relations, philanthropy and public sanitation as doctors and medicine.
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Wilmington boasts the state’s first licensed M.D., Armand DeRosset; the state’s first African-American licensed M.D., Francis Shober; and one of the state’s first medical and nursing schools. Dr. Thomas Fanning Wood and Dr. Moses John DeRosset III, the founders of public health in the state, are from Wilmington. And one of the state’s earliest and most innovative specialty hospitals, Babies Hospital, cared for children in the salt air of nearby Wrightsville Beach under the direction of Dr. J. Buren Sidbury.
But the region’s first hospitals had one of two functions: caring for the sick and wounded from the battlefield or caring for ailing sailors returning from sea.
As was the case with many of the early hospitals, the region’s first was seized rather than built. British soldiers during the Revolutionary War commandeered St. James Church in downtown Wilmington to care primarily for soldiers who had fallen ill. During the Civil War, the same story was often repeated as armies from both sides confiscated buildings for temporary use as hospitals. The concern over the spread of infectious disease, usually via unsanitary conditions, worried military leaders far more than actual battlefield injury. A deadly yellow fever epidemic in 1862 in Wilmington helped confirm their fears of cities as havens for plagues and disease.
By 1857, a major railway had connected Wilmington to Virginia. Wilmington had grown into the state’s largest city and cultural center. The federal government commissioned a hospital and hired Scottish builder James Walker to build it. The construction of U.S. Marine Hospital cost $43,898. Mr. Walker stayed in Wilmington and in 1900 commissioned the construction of a new hospital in his adopted hometown.
James Walker Memorial Hospital was a state-of-the-art hospital when it opened in 1902. It opened a nursing school for RNs and featured a women’s unit and horsedrawn ambulance service. It also had a “colored annex,” but it was clear that, in a town torn by a racial riot in 1898, access to care was not equal. African-American physicians, disgusted by their inability to practice, opened Community Hospital and a nursing school in 1921. The two hospitals operated separately for the next 46 years.
By 1947, James Walker Hospital had become outdated. The hospital board asked the county for funds to rebuild, but the issue died for lack of interest. In 1953, the James Walker board again asked for public money to build a new hospital, and again the proposal failed. Four years later, three prominent physicians pooled their resources and opened private Cape Fear Memorial Hospital. But that did not solve the problem of the major hospital facility being outdated.
With the area’s physicians saying current facilities were obsolete, there was enough interest in 1958 for voters to decide whether to build a new hospital. It failed by a 2½-to-1 margin. Supporters of a new hospital rallied again for another bond vote, but encountered opposition from African-American leaders who didn’t trust the white community to build an integrated hospital. Leaders of the drive for a new hospital tirelessly courted the black community, as well as the community at large, to support the proposed hospital.
Another vote was held on Nov. 7, 1961. With all votes tallied except one precinct – a mostly black downtown precinct – the “no” votes led the ballot. But by then, a foundation of trust had been built. The precinct came in overwhelmingly in favor of the hospital, and the referendum passed.
Less than six years later, New Hanover Memorial Hospital opened the same day James Walker Memorial Hospital closed. The first patients were prematurely born infants, and they arrived in a caravan of ambulances who traveled a route prescribed by law enforcement from throughout the region. The region had come together as one health care community for the first time.
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Today, New Hanover Regional Medical Center and its affiliates include three hospital campuses and a total of 855 licensed beds. New Hanover Regional Medical Center is the primary referral hospital in the region, with specialty centers in cardiac, cancer, obstetrics, trauma, vascular surgery, intensive care, rehabilitation, and psychiatry. In 1998, New Hanover Regional and Cape Fear Hospital merged. Cape Fear now operates as NHRMC Orthopedic Hospital. The medical center operates Pender Memorial Hospital and has invested in that hospital’s continued growth.
NHRMC acquired New Hanover County’s emergency medical services in 1998 and added the region’s first air ambulance service in 2001, around the same time it took a national lead in disaster response planning. One year later, New Hanover Regional EMS became the state’s first model EMS system.
A freestanding cancer center opened in 2001, and two years later the cancer program was designated a national Teaching Hospital Program by the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer and has been redesignated since.
In 2005, the Board of Trustees approved what would be the largest building and renovation project in the hospital's history. The project included the opening of a Surgical Pavilion in June 2008 and the Betty H. Cameron Women's and Children's Hospital three months later. The next phase included renovations of the main patient tower to include nearly all private rooms and redesigned spaces to make patients and their families more comfortable. The renovation was completed in December 2010.
The medical center has consistently expanded services into the surrounding region, to include construction of NHRMC ED-North, a standalone emergency department that opened in May 2015.
New Hanover Regional receives no local tax support for its operations and contributes about $145 million annually to care for the poor. As its services have grown, so has its role in this region’s economy. Including personnel costs and goods and services purchased, the medical center today has an impact of more than $1 billion annually on the economy of New Hanover County alone.