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Lee Memorial Health System plans to celebrate a century with a year of events

By Staff | Feb 12, 2016

Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida is the latest major project of the Lee Memorial Health System Carol Orr Hartman

Lee Memorial Health System is celebrating its 100th year birthday and the centennial celebration will continue a mission that has been followed since its inception: Caring people, caring for people.

Many may think of the Lee Memorial Health System as a big machine, but even big machines cannot work smoothly without working parts. The life of the system is attributed mainly to the people who work there and the community that it has supported and has supported it for many years.

There may not have been a hospital to begin with, however. Originally the Lee County Commission voted to fund building a new courthouse to replace the existing one instead of a hospital. A faction of th-e community opposed that vote and got a court injunction to stop the project. Then-county commissioner Bill Towles gathered 150 men, who worked by the light of a bonfire and under the protection of gun-toting Commission Towles, the courthouse was dismantled on October 26, 1914 for the wood to be used to build the new courthouse. That very wood was used to build the first hospital two years later.

On Oct, 3, 1916 the hospital was completed and a two-story wood frame facility with four rooms and 15 beds opened to the public at the corner of Victoria and Grand avenues in Fort Myers. Although the community at that time was small (1910 census reports 6,294 residents), Lee County has grown over the years to one of the most vibrant communities in the State of Florida and the Lee Memorial Health System has grown right with it, currently with 11,800 employees and boasting 1,426 licensed beds in four acute care hospitals, and two specialty hospitals, including Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, multiple outpatient centers, walk-in clinics, primary care and specialty physician practices. There is virtually no area of Lee County that is not served by the hospital system and it has become a regional health care resource for many families throughout Southwest Florida.

Some interesting tidbits about the hospital’s history are: The first patient was Sam Thompson from Labelle, who in 1916 rode his horse to the hospital because he was in pain and knew that there was a new hospital in Fort Myers to go to. His surgery to remove his appendix under the light of a kerosene lamp was successful. The first baby, James Fielder Allred, came on March 3, 1917, six months to the day after the first day the hospital was open. He went on to become an orthodontist in Pensacola. From 1924-1966, black residents received medical care at Lee Memorial’s Jones-Walker facility in Dunbar until Lee Memorial was integrated and Jones-Walker was closed.

Thousands of babies have been born in the Lee Memorial Health System since, including Pro Football Hall of Famer, Deion Sanders, Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann and Master Chef Finalist Derrick Peltz, who brought it full circle by attending and donating a dinner auctioned off at this year’s Rumrunner auction to benefit Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida which brought in $15,000 to the Golisano Children’s Hospital.

Lee Memorial Health system has contributed significantly to the quality of life of the residents of Southwest Florida. As Southwest Florida’s largest employer (and one of the oldest businesses in Lee County), employees contribute with their service to patients and also the community by buying homes, goods and services which creates a positive economical tidal wave.

Medical advances have also benefited Lee County from basic life-saving services and care when it first opened to today’s world-class health care with highly specialized services in cardiac, neurosciences, oncology, orthopedics, neonatal, pediatrics and trauma, to name a few.

Lee Memorial Health System would not be what it is without the people involved in the system. Employees and volunteers alike sing the praises of working with the hospital and are shining examples of the commitment to the belief that patients are people who have their own needs and stories.

* Members of the Lee Memorial ‘family’ share

Annie Kendrick just retired Jan. 27 after 55 years in food and nutrition services. Kendrick shares some memories of her many years with the system:

“I moved to Fort Myers in 1959 to live with my aunt as a young woman. A neighbor who lived down the street told me I should come to work with her and I was hired on the spot and have been in the same department for all those years. I started at Lee Memorial, transferred to open up Health Park, went back to Lee Memorial for a couple of years and transferred to Cape Coral Hospital when it was acquired until I retired. I delivered food to the patients in the rooms and have watched the food trends change over the years. When I first started, fresh food was served because that was all we had. When canned became popular, we served that and then frozen food came. I served that for years until it became healthy to serve fresh again which we did until I retired.

“It was the first job I ever had and I enjoyed working there,” Kendrick said. “When I was young it was a lot of fun and as I grew older I felt I was growing with the hospital. If something changed, we were right there with the change and I grew up there and learned about life there. I never had any other job to compare it to but had no reason to leave as I had amazing bosses that made you want to stay and gave us the opportunity to move up. The thing I liked most was the patients. I would get to know them and speak with them when I delivered food and it made me feel good when I was able to comfort them when they were anxious by just getting to know them as a person.”

Stacee Peltz, has been with the hospital for 16 years. She had her children at Lee Memorial Health System and shares her experience with Lee Memorial:

“I was living here in Fort Myers raising my children. I decided to move back to my hometown in Colorado to get a degree in Physical Therapy but I always loved Florida and wanted to come back because my specialty was geriatric physical therapy. When I was in Colorado working in acute rehabilitation, I discovered that Lee Memorial Health System had an acute rehabilitation facility with an excellent reputation, which was the area of specialty that I loved. I took a chance and called Susan Emanuel and pretty much got hired over the phone. When I started it was prn (as needed) but it immediately evolved into full-time employment. I worked in physical therapy and as it became harder as I’ve gotten older, the system has allowed me to transition into administrative, where I am able to use my training intellectually instead of physically.

When I started it was such a cool place to work,” Peltz said. “Everyone was so sweet and nice and it drew me in on the level of caring that everyone has. I was able to work in different care facilities within the system and I love sharing that everyone was so accepting and caring. It amazed me that everyone was so committed to the patients and that is why I have stayed so long. I could have gone elsewhere many times over and make more money but the tradeoff of happiness and contentment and benefits of working for the system outweigh the money I could have made. The tradeoff was worth it. I have always said that when people talk, Lee Memorial employers listen and they always have. Every department I have worked at when I need something, they do everything they can to accomplish it for my patients. You can feel that throughout the hospital. “

Stacee is very proud of Lee Memorial baby Derrick Peltz, finalist in last year’s Master Chef television program.

“Derrick was representing Fort Myers and the show has led to many exciting opportunities but he hasn’t forgotten his Lee Memorial and Fort Myers origins. When he found out he could be part of donating to the Golisano Children’s Hospital fundraiser at Rumrunners, he was really excited to participate. He was infatuated with the building of the Children’s Hospital and visiting it as he really loves kids. His donated dinner was auctioned for $15,000, in addition to the two trips he made to Fort Myers to be at the auction and to come back and do his dinner.” That is certainly coming full circle.

Cape Coral resident Destiny Haggett knows from personal experience what the Lee Memorial Health System has provided for the community. Every member of this Cape Coral family has been touched and survived because of the care and dedication of the hospital.

Her oldest son, Chansen Savakinus, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007 at age 6. During his first set of treatments, Destiny, who was 32 weeks pregnant with her second son Carson, had a splenic aneurism rupture. Normally 95 percent of infants and 75 percent of mothers die when this happens but both survived, a miracle she attributes to the dedication of the staff at Lee Memorial Health System. It took a team of 20 medical professionals working together to save her and Carson’s life against all odds.

“We are both alive because of how quickly the staff acted and the passion and love to save my son and they worked tirelessly for hours,” Haggett said. “I was using blood so fast that there were nurses running and getting blood replacement until they got it under control. He was in the NICU and I was in the hospital for three weeks recovering from the phenomenal job the staff did taking care of him and me.”

Chansen had been clear for 1.5 years when the cancer came back in his spinal fluid. At that point, he did another 2.5 years of treatment, during which time he had a stroke. The coordination between the ICU and his oncologist resulted in his recovery from the stroke.During his second treatment, Destiny’s husband Bill had open heart surgery. The support given to Destiny by the hospital and coordination between Bill’s doctors and Chansen’s oncologists were vital to Destiny who was struggling with two devastating medical issues.

“Over the years that we have been going to the hospital, it has become our second home and the staff has become like family,” Haggett said. “They treated us like family and they fought for us like family and you won’t see that anywhere else – they go above and beyond.”

Currently the entire family attends fundraisers as advocates of the hospital. Destiny is passionate about being advocates because every member of her family has been touched and is alive as a result of the hospital and feels that everyone should have access to that treatment.

Chansen has gone on at his young age to be the next generation of advocates for the hospital. He chairs the Luau fundraiser (Destiny and her husband Bill are co-chairs) and the entire committee is composed of mothers who have children fighting cancer. He speaks on behalf of the Children’s Hospital and Barbara’s Friends because he and his family feel that they need to do everything they can to bring the positive message and awareness of the hospital to all within their reach to help others. It would not be surprising to see Chansen be part of the future of the hospital as he was able to maintain honor roll status and top of class even during cancer treatments and is currently taking college level classes. Destiny says the hospital provided support to get them back to normal and healthy lives and doing all the things that families do.

“It was a long seven years but through the fight of the hospital to get us well, we are now able to pay it forward,” Haggett said.

* View from the top

Jim Nathan has been an integral part of the growth of the Lee Memorial Health System. Starting as an administrative assistant in 1975, he became Lee Memorial Health System’s CEO and president in 1982 and the most expansion in the hospital’s history has been done during his tenure. This growth includes the acquisition of other hospitals, the construction of Healthpark Medical Center, the opening of a Regional Cancer Center, the current expansion in South Lee within the next five years to the construction of the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, which is a huge advantage to residents of Lee County. Imagine the stress of having a sick child and having to make the decision of being with your sick child in Miami or Tampa or losing your job? This facility will allow Lee County’s young population to get treatment here instead of families having to make that painful decision.

Nathan shares his thoughts on why the hospital has been such an integral part of his life:

“In terms of longevity, every day has been a new day all these years, from health care financing, delivery of services to the community to the growth in the community which have provided the opportunity for my job to never to be boring. There is a lot of change and activity as we address the needs of the community.

“People in health care have the opportunity to do something very special that impacts all walks of life in our community. My first experience with a hospital was with my father. My dad was a professional patient and had several serious illnesses and was supposed to die before I was born but lived until age 76. I was a professional visitor for all those years and I saw the good, bad, and the challenges in health care through personal experience and that gave me a really good understanding of the importance of bringing people together to do great things in health care.

“I consider myself as an enabler so that brilliant, talented, hardworking and dedicated people have the opportunity to do their best work. I try to create a culture, and provide resources and structure to enable them to accomplish that. I have been with the hospital for 22 years. I left in 1997 because I felt that I could play a role in the national effort but when I got out there I found the politics of health care consumed the ability to do things on the national perspective. I was given the opportunity to come back to the Lee Memorial Health System as I realized that I could do more in a community environment than fighting Washington. Lee Memorial Health system has gained a reputation nationally and people from other parts of the country come here to see what we are doing and how we are doing it and I hope that people here locally see what we are and have accomplished here and how special we are.

“I have been back for almost 16 years and am very happy that I was able to do so,” Nathan continued. “I think that the growth in the community is an opportunity and also a challenge finding the financial capabilities and keeping up with the growth. We see that in health care across the board and are constantly having to map out where we will get the capital to keep up with the growth within the community and the staff. Many baby boomers are currently providing health care and we are looking at future employees to take the place of those that retire and take care of the baby boomers in our community. My family and I made a group decision many years ago to set up funds for foundations and grants to our employees, which has grown to include many other individuals. Now, all three auxiliaries in addition to individuals in the community have jumped on board to set up funds and foundations to provide education grants to our employees. Our educational grants alone exceed $200,000 per year to our employees wanting to further their education.

“In closing, our mission of ‘Caring people caring for people’ permeates throughout the thousands and thousands of people employed in our system who care for others. We are also blessed with 4,500 volunteers, which is a very large group compared to other hospitals and organizations, who feel as strongly about Lee Memorial Health System in our community as our employees and I do.”

* Let the celebrations begin!

The Lee Memorial Health System is proud of the contribution that they have made to the growth and history of Fort Myers. Many of the residents who were born here or were treated here have gone on to do great things with many giving back and contributing to the future growth and contributions of the Health System to the community.

Lee Memorial Health System’s yearlong centennial celebration will kick off with a float in the Edison Festival of Light Junior Parade on Sunday, Feb. 14, and the Grand Parade next Saturday, Feb. 20. In addition to other celebrations planned throughout the year and educational events for the community, the Health System will host Healthfest 2016 on Feb. 21 at the CenturyLink Sports Complex, in conjunction with the Minnesota Twins’ Open house.