Cape Fear Hospital: A history with lots of “heart”

July 09, 2007
On a sweltering summer afternoon patient transporter Jimmie Willis, 66, stands in the parking lot at the Hawthorne Drive entrance to Cape Fear Hospital, his right hand raised and pointing.

“This was once our respiratory area right over here,” he says, motioning to a small brick building with a low-hipped roof, today home to EMS and VitaLink. “And down this way near the doctors’ parking lot was a string of doctors’ offices. And on the corner was a drugstore.”

For a moment, it might be difficult to visualize the image, especially amid today’s Cape Fear Hospital, a modern, multi-acre medical campus home to more than 600 employees and a sprawling Doctor’s Park.

In truth, it’s a picture of Cape Fear as Willis, a 43-year hospital employee, first knew it back in 1964, seven years after Cape Fear Hospital, a private, non-profit institution, was established.

Founded by R. Thomas Sinclair Jr., MD, William C. Mebane Jr., MD, and Samuel E. Pace, MD, then Cape Fear Memorial Hospital opened on August 6, 1957, the result of an aging private James Walker Hospital (1902) and crowded conditions at Bulluck Hospital (1922) on Wilmington’s busy Front Street.

“With facilities at both James Walker and Bulluck becoming more and more antiquated, there was a movement to float a bond issue to rebuild James Walker … but it was voted down,” said Dr. Sinclair, 94, Cape Fear’s last surviving founder. “That’s when we began to wonder if it was possible to establish a small private hospital.”

That possibility was soon realized when the three physicians purchased for $50,000 a tract of land off Wrightsville Avenue once home to the county-owned Wessell Tuberculosis Sanitarium.

Boasting a brick building with four wards, kitchen facilities, treatment area, offices and a nurses’ cottage, the original property underwent immediate renovations with monies raised from a public subscription drive, including adding a west wing.

At this time Drs. Sinclair, Mebane and Pace donated the hospital to a non-profit board of trustees that would become its legal owners, overseeing its operations and continuing to seek financial assistance for its modernization.

Benefactors of the facility, which was soon dubbed “the hospital with a heart,” included friends of the hospital and the Duke and Reynolds Foundations. No state or county tax dollars were used in converting the old sanitarium.

On opening day patients paid $3 for an office visit, $10 for a physical, and, if hospitalized, $8 a day for a private room. Nurses in those early days wore blue capes in addition to their starched white uniforms.

The latter half of the 20th century witnessed tremendous growth at Cape Fear, including construction of a new obstetrics wing with a nursery (1959); a Special Care Unit, a new lobby and exterior, and expanded administrative, laboratory and pathology quarters (1969); and, most munificently, the Jackson Wing (1971), built with a $250,000 donation from local beverage distributor J.W. Jackson.

In 1980 a $3.2 million bond issue paved the way for new emergency facilities and a three-story patient bed tower containing a new intensive care unit and 32 private and semi-private rooms.

In May 1996, however, Cape Fear’s long tradition of autonomy as a private, non-profit local hospital was broken when its trustees agreed to sell the hospital to for-profit Columbia/HCA, the nation’s largest hospital chain, for $55 million.

But Columbia/HCA’s tenure was short-lived when two years later New Hanover Regional Medical Center purchased Cape Fear Memorial for $98 million, converting it to public status and giving birth to New Hanover Health Network.

Today, Cape Fear, with more than 140 licensed beds and home to a nationally recognized orthopedic specialty center, works shoulder to shoulder with New Hanover Regional providing the region’s largest, most comprehensive array of health care services.

“Serving the health care needs of Wilmington’s residents through Cape Fear Hospital has been an honor and a privilege,” Dr. Sinclair said. “Today, Cape Fear’s association with New Hanover Regional greatly enhances the quality of health care for all in the Lower Cape Fear.”