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“We Did the Best We Could”

Bedford County is cradled at the foot of a particularly scenic section of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The county may be small in population, but is certainly not small in spirit. Home to Thomas Jefferson’s summer plantation, Poplar Forest, the rural county was almost 200 years old when its citizens began a drive to build a modern, well-equipped hospital to serve approximately 30,000 residents.

The city of Bedford is located halfway between the cities of Roanoke and Lynchburg. Attractive to retirees as well as native residents, Bedford has historically had a large proportion of elderly citizens. Since the 1930s, both farmers and suburbanites received medical care at two privately owned hospitals located in converted residences in the town. While staffed well, they were small and limited in equipment.

“We did the best we could with what we had,” remembered Dr. Tom Jennings, who started a family practice in Bedford in 1952. “We had a number of doctors practicing here, so John Russell Hospital was especially crowded. For serious cases, we had the big hospitals in Lynchburg and Roanoke, but each was more than 30 miles away.”

Bedford Needs a Modern Hospital

After World War II ended, local civic leaders acknowledged that their community needed an accessible, up-to-date, and larger medical facility. It took more than five years, a lot of planning, and the leadership skills of two very committed women to accomplish that goal. Harnessing a strength the county didn’t know it had, Mrs. Robert A. Harper, assisted by Mrs. Jesse T. Davidson Jr., organized a building campaign that became known as “the county’s greatest achievement.”

The idea of a modern hospital had roots in an effort to establish a memorial to honor community members who served in the war. In 1946, a meeting was held in the Bedford County Courthouse to discuss such a memorial, but the idea was voted down.

In 1948, a second attempt at a memorial was linked with the area’s need for a new hospital. By this time, Congress had passed the Hill-Burton Act, which provided federal and state matching funds for community hospital construction. A committee was formed to assess whether the community could raise the local match required to apply for the Hill-Burton money, but the project was stalled when it was determined to be impractical.

Unwilling to give up on a good idea, in 1949, Harper, a prominent civic leader, gathered a large group of people in her home. This setting would become the command post for the project’s ultimate success. An organizing committee was named and a major campaign was publicly announced. Despite the discord, indecision, and faintheartedness often found in small communities, the hospital committee persisted through 1950. A hospital board of directors was formed to employ professional fundraisers from the American City Bureau of Chicago, architects were hired, and plans for a 40-bed hospital were adopted. From campaign headquarters on South Street, the board prepared to ask citizens to contribute $350,000 to be matched with Hill-Burton funding to build Bedford County Memorial Hospital.

Using the hospital as a way for people to memorialize their loved ones was timely and particularly welcome. The project met with overwhelming enthusiasm. As local news accounts reported at the time: “In this campaign Bedford County is going through the most stirring emotional experience of its history. No one who has watched this movement grow in half a year from the first faint flickering hopes to today’s swelling tide of determination… can doubt that this community of nearly 30,000 souls is undergoing a spiritual rebirth.”

By July 1950, corporations, fraternal groups, civic groups and more than 3,100 individuals had donated and pledged almost half a million dollars.  In addition to financial commitments, a beautiful building site for the new hospital was donated by the family of local businessman and farmer, Fletcher O. Thomas. The new hospital would be located on what was then the northern outskirts of town. The site offered a magnificent, unobstructed, sweeping view of the valley to the Peaks of Otter.

“It Was Awfully Hard to Wait”

The glow of success for Bedford was interrupted by the onset of the Korean War, which caused rapid changes. Inflation and war efforts halted many government projects, including appropriations for Hill-Burton funding around the country. Coincidentally, Virginia had ceased contributing its share to the Hill-Burton program for two biennial periods. Unwilling to compromise the plan for Bedford’s hospital, the board of directors decided to wait until federal and state money could be obtained before beginning construction.  “We never doubted that the project was doable,” remembers Mrs. Davidson, who was secretary of the board at that time. “But it was awfully hard to wait.”

Bedford’s hospital was passed over in the allocation of funds by the Virginia General Assembly until 1952, when an all-out effort was undertaken to secure appropriations. New studies were conducted proving the county’s urgent need for a modern hospital. Hartwell Hospital had burned, leaving only one facility to handle the entire county. On August 4, 1952, an energetic group from Bedford, most of them members of the hospital board of directors, marched on Richmond. They pleaded their case before the Virginia Hospital Advisory Council, the group which made recommendations to the State Department of Health, regarding allocation of federal and state hospital funds.

The Bedford Hospital board plunged into construction plans, securing a line of credit to bridge construction costs with local pledges and government appropriations. In 1953, the Roanoke firm of H.A. Lucas won the contract from among 15 other bidders. Within the next month Charles H. Frenzel came to Bedford to assume the duties of hospital administrator, directing the hiring of staff and purchasing of equipment.

On Feb. 20, 1955, the citizens of Bedford dedicated their new hospital. Nearly 2,000 people attended. The local newspaper gave front page coverage to the event: “The dedication rites were held in the big parking lot just south of the hospital. A raised platform, embellished with evergreens and flowers, enabled the speaker and other notables to look out over the crowd…with the Peaks of Otter in the background.”

Acknowledging more than five years of planning, giving and very hard work, and an outlay of nearly one million dollars, the paper called the event the “greatest civic undertaking in modern times.”

“The Best Little Hospital in Virginia”

The 48-bed hospital accepted its first patient March 8, 1955. Chartered as a not-for-profit institution, services were provided for as low as $9 per day for bed, board, and all nursing. Private rooms were $12 per day. The charge for delivery of babies and a six-week checkup was $100, a fee that lasted for more than 25 years. Doctors were charging $2 to $5 for an office visit during this period. Nurses remember working for $1 an hour during the first years at the hospital. They mixed medicines, IVs, and administered prescriptions.  “There was good nursing care, very caring bedside nursing,” according to Dr. Freeman Jenrette, retired family practitioner.

The new hospital brought the medical community together, and was well supported by its citizens, all of whom appreciated the improvements to community health. By the end of the first year reports show that approximately 500 babies had been delivered, almost 1,600 patients had been treated, 500 surgeries were performed, and another 1,000 patients had received emergency room attention. The hospital’s new facilities enabled physicians to provide improved care for patients using modern equipment and accessible emergency services. Ambulance transport was provided by the local funeral home until life saving crews were organized in the late 1960s and 1970s.

After less than two years of operation, the hospital was approved by The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals. Bedford was one of the first in the state for hospitals of its type and size to be accredited. By April 1, 1957, the hospital celebrated the delivery of its 1,000th baby.

As a cooperative effort between the hospital and the Bedford County School System, a School of Practical Nursing opened in September 1964, graduating approximately 12 students each year to date.

Expanding Through the Years

The hospital expanded in 1964 to accommodate private rooms and a long-term care unit, bringing the bed count to 78. By the mid-1970s hospitals nationwide were being whipsawed by government regulated reimbursement programs, often below local costs. The long-term care/nursing home unit was draining operating funds from Bedford Hospital’s daily needs.

Ever mindful of the high number of elderly in the community, the hospital began a $3.7 million addition in 1974 to accommodate another 100 beds in a long-term care wing. The addition also included a wing for a new emergency department, as well as expanded admissions department, laboratory, radiology, and respiratory therapy departments. A medical office building was also built in 1977 adjacent to the hospital. Nevertheless, as a rural, not-for-profit institution serving an above-average proportion of elderly patients, the hospital was having difficulty finding cash to maintain the upgrading and modernization required of a major medical center.

Attracting younger physicians to the area was difficult because pay scales were lower than competing larger cities could offer. With no emergency room (ER) doctors on staff, Bedford’s doctors rotated duty at the hospital ER for 24-hours or all-weekend shifts, in addition to covering their private practices.

Affiliation and Further Growth

To further strengthen its healthcare position in the early 1980s, the hospital merged with the Roanoke Hospital Association and by 1987, a $3.3 million renovation and expansion project was completed, which modernized obstetrical/nursery departments, surgical suites, intensive care units and medical surgical units. In 1996, under a new branding strategy and guideline, the hospital was renamed Carilion Bedford Memorial Hospital (CBMH) to reflect its partnership with Carilion Health System in Roanoke.

Just two years later, Carilion appropriated $12 million to the hospital over a five-year period to expand services and improve healthcare technology. The initiative resulted in quite a few improvements, including complete renovation of the hospital lobby, addition of a cardiology clinic, expansion of the Emergency Department and completion of a two-story, 32,000 sq.-ft Medical Office Building. The MOB now serves as the main entrance of the hospital and houses several specialized services, such as physical therapy, cardiac rehab, laboratory, and a wound care clinic.

Continuing the hospital’s connection with the community, Carilion and Centra Health (Lynchburg) signed a formal letter of agreement on Jan. 17, 2001, to jointly own and operate Carilion Bedford Memorial Hospital. Reflective of this partnership, the name of the facility was changed to Bedford Memorial Hospital

A Commitment to Future Healthcare

Thirteen years later Centra announced its decision to solely own and operate Bedford Memorial Hospital by purchasing Carilion’s half of the organization, which was completed in July 2014. Since that time Centra has made significant investments in both the facilities and people and plans to continue its commitment in an effort to ensure the hospital is here for the community for generations to come. .

 Among the changes already completed are upgraded technology including a 64-slice CT Scanner, fully renovated private patient rooms and a full service kitchen. Centra will invest an additional $2M in 2016 to continue work on the master facility plan.  Centra Bedford Memorial Hospital provides specialty services including Neurology, Cardiology, Urology, Pulmonology and Surgery both inpatient and outpatient. Primary care services have expanded with close to 20 providers. Centra Medical Group Bedford’s office is now located in the hospital in the Medical Office Building second floor. New patients are accepted.   

Today, Bedford County continues to attract families from nearby larger cities as well as retirees from outside the region. As a major employer in the county, the hospital has provided jobs for county residents so they can work and live in this beautiful area. Now, as it was in mid-century, Bedford’s community strength is surprising. What looks like a small town has a major “can-do” medical facility for everyone’s future – Centra Bedford Memorial Hospital.