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In the early 20th century, the future looked bright for Dr. James Beebe Sr. and Dr. Richard C. Beebe.
At Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, the brothers had studied under physicians who were at the forefront of modern medicine. Philadelphia was full of hospitals that offered groundbreaking procedures. Yet both Beebes elected to practice at home in Lewes, a maritime town surrounded by farmland.
Inspired by Dr. William J. Mayo and Dr. Charles H. Mayo—founders of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota—the Beebe brothers in 1916 opened a three-bed hospital on Savannah Road next to their father’s farm. The facility was so small, they soaked the X-ray film in the family’s claw-foot bathtub, and James Beebe’s wife cooked for the patients and the staff.
Fast-forward 100 years. Beebe Healthcare today includes a hospital licensed for 210 beds, the only nursing school in Delaware directly affiliated with a hospital, three major outpatient campuses and two small outpatient centers, four walk-in care sites and a host of complementary services, including a home health agency and an adult day care, in 32 locations across southern Delaware.
A nonprofit community health system, Beebe is “ingrained into the fabric of the community,” says Michael DiPaolo, executive director of the Lewes Historical Society. “When an institution has been in a community for 100 years, it just speaks to its longevity. It speaks to its importance.”
But while celebrating its past, Beebe Healthcare is also focused on the future. By January 2019, Beebe plans to start construction on one of the most ambitious expansions in its history—and there have been many. The $200 million project includes a five-story addition to the hospital at Savannah Road and Fourth Street. It will hold a proposed 112 private patient rooms, state-of-the art operating rooms and cardiology electrophysiology and interventional rooms, plus space for a new café and gift shop. The project may also include the expansion of the Tunnell Cancer Center and services in the Bethany Beach area.
Meanwhile, Beebe is on a quest to make Sussex County one of the healthiest in the nation. “I would love to see Beebe accomplish this,” says longtime board member Janet B. McCarty. “I would love for us to be able to have what it takes—all the primary care doctors, all the facilities—to make people be the healthiest that they can be, to keep them out of the hospital and to take charge of their lifestyle.”
Reaching all these goals won’t be easy. But if its 100-year history is any indication, Beebe is up to the task.
Beebe Healthcare president and CEO Jeffrey M. Fried. (Photo by Kevin Fleming)
The Beebe name was well known in Lewes long before the hospital opened. Ichabod Beebe moved to Lewes from Philadelphia sometime before the American Revolution. His descendants also served in the War of 1812.
The doctors’ father, Richard Beebe, at various points owned a general store and a hotel. He was also a contractor and brick mason. Using a block-making kit from Sears and sand from Lewes Beach, Richard Beebe built an addition to the frame office building that the brothers had moved from the canal. Richard Beebe used the machine again in 1921, when Benjamin F. Shaw—a Wilmington businessman with a home in Rehoboth Beach—donated money for a new hospital, and in 1927, when Shaw funded an addition to building.
A series of expansions followed, starting in 1938 with the dedication of the Mary Wilson Thompson Annex, named for the Wilmington socialite who battled mosquitoes at the beach between raising money for Beebe. The Lynch Building was added in stages, beginning with the first two floors in 1963 and ending with the fifth floor in 1975. In 1985, Beebe broke ground on the John W. Rollins Wing, followed by the Clinical Building, the first home to the Tunnell Cancer Center, in 1995 and the Joseph R. Hudson Wing in 2008. The health campus on Del. 24, the Tunnell Cancer Center’s current home, opened in 2003.
The nursing school, which began in 1921 at the request of a local woman who wanted to study close to home, also expanded. Until 1960, students occupied the hospital’s original clapboard building, which had moved to make way for the Shaw Building. The Jean Ellen McConnell Nurses’ Home opened in 1960. It was torn down, and the Margaret H. Rollins School of Nursing building opened in 2015. The school was renamed to honor Lewes native Margaret “Peggy” Rollins, whose foundation Ma-Ran donated $3 million toward the new structure. (The school no longer has a dormitory.)
“Not many health systems in the country have faced the same pressure to expand and, in fact, many hospitals are experiencing declining inpatient volumes,” says Jeffrey M. Fried, president and CEO of Beebe. “Beebe’s growth over the past 100 years has been exceptional. In large part, that is because the population growth [in Sussex County] has been so substantial.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county’s population estimate in July 2015 was 215,622, not including summer residents and tourists. It was a 9.4 percent increase from 2010. Due to the number of retirees attracted to the beaches and the low property taxes, the population increase shows no sign of stopping, and the new residents want healthcare providers close to home.
Founders of Beebe Healthcare,
Because Beebe owns land around the campus on Del. 24, it would not have been surprising if the health system built a new hospital outside the Lewes city limits. Consider that Christiana Care Health System, rooted in the merger of three hospitals in Wilmington, opened Christiana Hospital near Newark in 1885. Bayhealth Medical Center—created in 1997 through the merger of Milford Memorial and Kent General hospitals—is building a new hospital on a 165-acre site off Del. 1 at Wilkins and Cedar Creek roads. It is expected to open in 2019.
Beebe’s leadership considered moving to Del. 24, but the estimated cost of building a new facility and moving operations topped $360 million. There were other reasons for staying in the Lewes city limits. “We really like our location here,” Fried says. “It’s where we started. If we were to move out to Route 24, we certainly would have more room, but we would be giving up so much of the infrastructure that we’ve already built and developed here. There are economies of scale with remaining in Lewes.”
Moreover, the hospital is a landmark, and its ties to the immediate community are tight. Growing up in Lewes, “There was hardly a family you could touch that didn’t have an association with Beebe,” says Hazel Brittingham, Lewes’ historian.
There is another bond between Beebe and the town. “The hospital is an important part of the economy in Lewes,” says Mayor Ted Becker. “It plays a vital role in bringing people to the community, and it serves as a resource for visitors as well as patients, so it’s a very important economic engine.”
Among the heavy influx of retirees are those who chose to move to the beaches as much for healthcare as for the sand and surf. With its four walk-in care sites and other services in the community, Beebe is reaching such residents where they live.
“With more and more care delivered on an outpatient basis, thanks to emerging technologies and medical advances, the savings of $160 million can be used to develop more satellite facilities, as well as expand the facilities we already have,” Fried says. “This will allow our community to have better access to medical services that are closer to their homes.”
Technology, medical advances and the pressure to reduce healthcare costs have spurred the growth of outpatient services. Modern healthcare and reform has put more emphasis on early detection and effective disease management, a sector known as population health.
“Our goal to integrate clinical services across the Beebe system of care will continue to impact where we provide services and how we utilize information technology to optimize outcomes and the care experience for those we serve,” says Megan Williams, director of the population health department, which was formed in 2011.
In 2012 Beebe, Bayhealth Medical Center and Nanticoke Health Services in 2012 formed Healthier Sussex County to improve wellness across the county. Nearly 65 percent of Sussex residents are 65 or over. With age comes increased risk of cancer, heart disease and orthopedic issues, such as the need for joint replacements.
Keeping up with the services and technology needed to care for an aging population comes at a price. To a greater degree than its colleagues in Kent and New Castle counties, Beebe faces the challenge of a large patient population on Medicare.
Beebe staffers pose with patients in the
Payment rates for Medicare and Medicaid, with the exception of managed care plans, are set by the law, not by a negotiation process, so reimbursement for services provided to patients often doesn’t cover the costs. In 2014, hospitals received payments of only 89 cents for every dollar spent on Medicare patients, according to the American Hospital Association.
Despite the hardship, Beebe has done an admirable job of meeting the community’s needs. The Tunnell Cancer Center has offered chemotherapy since 1980 and radiation treatments since 1995. The vascular program launched in 1990. The open-heart surgery program began in 2007. Beebe was the first in the state to start an integrative health department and offer the Ornish Reversal Program, designed by Dean Ornish to prevent, stop and reverse the progression of heart disease.
There is pressure to do even more—not only for patients, but also for physicians. In 1995, when Fried moved to Beebe from Lancaster General Hospital, there were about 70 doctors on staff. Now there are more than 200. The number of specialists has also grown significantly since 1950, when Dr. James Beebe Jr. was the first board-certified surgeon, and 1980, when his nephew, Dr. James P. Marvel Jr., joined the staff as first board-certified orthopedic surgeon.
To keep doctors—and best serve patients—Beebe must stay on the cutting edge of technology. “Donors’ gifts, which most often go directly to support new state-of-the-art medical equipment at Beebe, truly do save and change lives on a daily basis,” says Judy Aliquo, president and CEO of the Beebe Medical Foundation, which was founded in 1989 to focus on philanthropy.
The foundation is now raising funds for a hybrid operating room and an additional lab for electrophysiology and cauterization procedures. Beebe Healthcare spends $20 million on capital equipment and improvements annually.
The capital campaign for the expansion might be the largest fundraising effort ever in Sussex County—let alone in Beebe’s history—Aliquo says. Along with direct appeals and promoting legacy giving (naming Beebe as the beneficiary of an estate), Beebe this year started the 1916 club. Members agree to give $1,916 or more each year.
When it comes to fundraising, Beebe has an advantage over many urban hospitals. “People down here just love their hospital,” says R. Michael Clemmer, the former executive director of the foundation and former associate vice president for development at Georgetown University Medical Center. “They love the fact that quality healthcare is available to them.”
Over the years, healthcare systems have approached Beebe about a merger or acquisition. The number of queries increased in the wake of Earl Bradley’s arrest. The former pediatrician, who was in private practice, on June 23, 2011, was convicted on 24 counts of rape, assault and sexual exploitation of 86 children. In a civil suit, the plaintiffs, Beebe Medical Center, several physicians and insurance companies agreed to a $123 million settlement in part to protect families from the emotional stress of prolonged litigation.
“Time and time again, [the board of directors] has determined that it is better for the community and patients to be served by individuals who best understand the healthcare needs of southern Delaware because they live in those same communities,” Fried says.
Beebe’s staff now includes a third generation of Beebe family members. Several doctors have been with Beebe since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nancy Collick, a respiratory therapist, is granddaughter of the late Ernest Gooch Sr., who became the Beebes’ first ambulance driver in 1919.
In the 100 years since Dr. James Beebe Sr. and Dr. Richard C. Beebe opened the hospital, much has changed. They wouldn’t recognize Beebe today—or Lewes, for that matter. “I think they’d fall out in a dead faint,” says Eleanor Cordrey, who was a nurse at Beebe for 49 years.
But one thing hasn’t changed: Beebe remains a family-focused community hospital dedicated to bringing convenient, quality healthcare to Sussex County. No doubt, the founders would be proud.
To celebrate its 100th birthday, Beebe created a DVD, “The Voices Behind the Dream: The Story of Beebe Healthcare,” and a book, “Two Men with a Dream: The Story of Beebe Healthcare,” written by Pam George, author of this article, and published by local photographer Kevin Fleming. Each features interviews with more than 50 former and current Beebe employees and people whose lives have intersected with what’s become a Lewes landmark and Sussex County institution. You can purchase them online at beebestore.com/Commemorative-Books.