This is the third in a series of articles marking Southeastern Health’s 65th Anniversary during the month of August.
LUMBERTON — This August, Robeson County’s only hospital, Southeastern Regional Medical Center, celebrates 65 years of serving and healing the community.
After the Thompson Hospital and Baker Sanatorium merged and reopened as the new Robeson County Memorial Hospital in 1953, the hospital, which has undergone a few name changes since then, has been at the center of the medical community in Lumberton.
Several longtime physicians shared some memories and thoughts about this anniversary, their years of practice in the community, and the changes and growth the hospital has seen.
Dr. D.E. Ward Jr.: Ward, 97, practiced for 58 years in Lumberton and retired at the age of 90 in 2011. At first, he was at the Baker Sanatorium, and moved when the hospitals merged. He also was a member of the hospital’s board of trustees in the 1960s.
“I think one of the principle things was we had a group of doctors in the 1950s and 1960s who loved the hospital and Robeson County and wanted to see it grow,” he said. “That core of physicians and a dedicated and efficient nursing staff is the base of what we have now. We’ve also had good hospital administrators who have done an excellent job of growing the hospital.”
As a member of the faculty at Wake Forest School of Medicine, he saw one or two senior medical students on rotation every month for decades, 392 in total when he retired from teaching. He thinks the addition of the residency program partnership with Campbell University is a boon for the hospital and the community, Ward said.
“I think the residents are great. They’re good for the hospital, good for patients and the community,” he said. “It’s good to get away from the medical school. The majority of medicine is practiced in small community hospitals.”
Dr. William Rowell Burleson: Burleson, who is retiring in December after 47 years of practice, says he’s seen a lot of changes in the way physicians practice as the local medical community has transitioned from being mostly private practices to more of a hospital-based community, a change that has taken place across the country. One of the better parts of that change has been technological advances, he said.
“I like the progress they’re making with medical records,” he said. “They’re trying to make things better by being up to date with records on the computer, which functions to coordinate care and allow for more communication between providers. Epic is a good thing.”
Epic, branded locally as Harmony, is Southeastern Health’s new electronic health record system, which replaced the old one from 2000. The new system has been rolled out over the last year, and can be accessed from the main hospital, clinics, and independent providers.
Dr. John Rozier: Rozier started practicing in Lumberton in 1975, when the name was Southeastern General Hospital. Originally from St. Pauls, he was a resident at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston when he was recruited to come back home by a fellow residency alumnus, Dr. Ernest Brown.
“Lumberton and Robeson County have been very good to me,” Rozier said. “It’s been a good, rewarding experience. There are a lot of great people who live here, and it’s also challenging, with lots of pathology. I am grateful for having the opportunity to practice in this community.”
Rozier remembers the days when the local doctors, who all had their own private practices, would come in early to the hospital to make rounds on their patients, something most doctors don’t do now with the advent of hospitalists. Hospitalists, a relatively new trend, are hospital-based physicians dedicated to coordinating care for patients who are in the hospital.
“After, we’d meet in the cafeteria to have coffee and discuss patients,” he said. “You miss some of the camaraderie, but the hospitalists are much better for the patient and it’s easier for the physician.”
The advent of outpatient procedures is one of Rozier’s favorite advances from his years practicing medicine, along with technological leaps, like laparoscopic surgeries and robotic surgeries.
“There are some advantages to hanging around,” he said. “Technology has totally changed medical care. It’s hard to believe when I came it was just the original building. We didn’t have a diagnostic center, the bed tower, the cardiac unit, Gibson Cancer Center, or the fitness center. It was just the basic hospital. It’s been fun to think back about all the changes.”
Dr. Gerard “Jerry” Devine: Devine has been practicing in Lumberton for 40 years. His office at Lumberton Medical Clinic became part of the hospital system in 2008.
“The main thing is the hospital allowed the clinic to stay in business,” he said. “It’s been functioning since the 1930s.”
Devine said the community welcomed him with open arms, making practicing in Lumberton a privilege.
“There are families who I’ve seen for two or three generations,” he said. “I have one patient who I’ve had from the beginning. She’s in a wheelchair now, but she still sees me. I have the best patients in the world. At Christmas and Thanksgiving, I get more food than I can eat from them.”
Devine talks fondly of being invited by patients to family gatherings, like weddings, graduations, and other celebrations. He keeps photos on his office wall of all his patients who are centenarians, and tells this story of a memory that stands out:
“When we had one of the hurricanes in the 1990s, the town had no electricity and the hospital was on generator power, so my wife and I drove in to see if there was damage. A couple of trees had fallen on the roof of the clinic. There was debris everywhere, and as we’re looking at this I hear this little voice call out. It was a patient in her 80s, and she had come from Bladenboro, though floods and downed trees. ‘What are you doing here?’ I said. ‘I have an appointment,’ she said. Well, since she had come through all that, I went into the office, got my prescription pad, a blood pressure cuff, stethoscope, everything I needed, and I did a parking lot call. Then she said, ‘How do I pay you?’ I said it was on the house.”
Dr. Peter Villani: Villani retired in 2013 after practicing for 33 years in Lumberton. After hearing that the city didn’t have a vascular surgeon, Villani first visited Lumberton in February 1980. He’d left three feet of snow back home in West Virginia, but Lumberton was 70 degrees and sunny with the azaleas in bloom.
“I just liked it,” he said. “I liked the people, the hospital was good to us, and we had a good relationship between the hospital and hospital management. And there was plenty of work to do.”
He points to the rise of endovascular techniques as the game-changer in his career.
“After you’ve done open vascular surgery, including open aneurysms, all your life and seen how patients react to that, when you do endovascular surgery, it’s so much easier on the patient as far as hospital recovery and stay, you are able to send them home much sooner, likely within a day or two, with much shorter recovery times,” he said. “Laparoscopy and endovascular are the two biggest things that have come along, and it’s getting better and better. Never bet against technology because you’ll lose every time.”
Villani said all his best memories of his times at the hospital were because of the staff he worked with throughout the hospital, especially those who took care of surgical patients.
“We had a fairly close-knit group,” he said. “We took things seriously, but we could also kid with each other and have fun. When your operation was over you could ask about people’s families. It never felt like we were working. We worked long shifts, but it felt like we were doing something good. The people in the OR were just as good as any I’ve worked with.”
Roxana Ross is content writer/photographer for Southeastern Health in the Corporate Communications department.