By Rob Kalesse
Special to Delaware Business Times
What started out as a small building on Savannah Road in Lewes, literally built with cement blocks made of the sand from nearby beaches, has grown into one of the most respected hospitals on the eastern seaboard. This year, Beebe Healthcare celebrates 100 years of serving the people of Sussex County, and over that time, the institution has become as much a part of the beach community as the sand and waves that attract so many to the area.
Founded in 1916 by Drs. James and Richard Beebe, the hospital began with two patient rooms and offices occupied by the doctors, a staff of two nurses, and James’s wife, Elsie, who cooked meals for the staff and patients. Today, Beebe Healthcare’s sprawling medical campus reaches the far corners of Sussex County, from Millsboro to Seaford to the Delaware beaches, with 32 different locations in total.
When the two brothers began seeing patients a century ago, their hope was to bring modern medicine and surgery to southern Delaware, while offering house calls to the ill and suffering throughout Sussex County. Jeffrey Fried, president and CEO of Beebe Healthcare, says the hospital’s success and longevity can be summed up in one word: people.
“From James and Richard Beebe to where we are today, from our board of directors to hospital staff, we have an organization that is very focused on serving our community,” Fried said. “We’re the only healthcare provider in our immediate service area, so we take care of each other like neighbors and family, because when it comes down to it, that’s who we are.”
That commitment has also helped the community as a whole, according Mayor Ted Becker, who first visited in 1978 and later purchased a beach house in 1981. Becker moved to Delaware permanently in 2000, and for nearly 40 years has watched as Beebe Hospital has expanded to keep pace with the population growth of Lewes and the greater Delaware coastal region.
“Having Beebe here is a huge draw for the town, especially when you look at our demographics and the fact you can’t really find quality care within 25 miles,” Becker said, referring to how a third of the city’s population is over the age of 65. “As health care has changed dramatically, Beebe has really stepped up, and that’s a major draw to retirees looking to move here.”
In the decades following the hospital’s opening, a School of Nursing was added in 1921, followed by the Shaw Building in 1927, bringing Beebe’s bed total to 60. Various additions have been built over the years, and with them, more and more doctors have been drawn to Lewes. In 1967, Dr. Anis K. Saliba became the first board certified thoracic surgeon at Beebe and in 1980, Dr. James P. Marvel Jr. became the first board-certified orthopedic surgeon at Beebe.
Jan McCarty, who has sat on Beebe’s board of directors since 1994, serving as president from 2005-2010, is part of five generations that have been treated or born at the hospital, or both. While she agrees with Fried’s theory that Beebe’s staying power is due in large part to a focus on people, she also points out one financial reason for the hospital’s longevity.
“Part of the beauty of Beebe is that we are a not-for-profit hospital that doesn’t have to satisfy any sort of corporate stakeholder or stockholders, other than the community itself,” McCarty said. “Every dime of profit goes back into the hospital, from expanding to getting new equipment to repairs.”
Although Fried, McCarty and Becker have seen decades of growth in Lewes and at Beebe, no one has seen more action in the halls of the hospital than Bonnie Austin. A registered nurse who has focused much of her career on pediatrics, “Nurse Bonnie,” as she’s known, graduated from Beebe’s School of Nursing in 1962 and went straight to working at the hospital.
“I always wanted to be a teacher, but after my father had a terrible farming accident and was treated at Beebe, he asked me to give nursing a try,” Austin said. “He was such a wise man that I decided to give it a try. Here I am 54 years later, so I guess dad must have known something.”
Austin says the School of Nursing, which became accredited in 1977, is one of the most important aspects of Beebe’s tie-in with the community, in that the school acted as a pipeline and feeder for nurses to become employed at the hospital.
“In more recent years, as the school has grown, we can’t hire all 22 graduates to the hospital staff each year; we need seasoned people to fill roles here as well,” Austin said. “But the school is a vital part of our whole being here: it covers the academia aspect and provides us with new information for the hospital. I’m biased, sure, but I just can’t imagine Beebe without School of Nursing.”
As Beebe moves into its next century of existence, Fried sees more expansion and changes coming to the institution, beginning with a change in name from Beebe Hospital to Beebe Healthcare in 2013. “We made that change to reflect that we are not just a hospital, but that we are striving to become an organization that focuses health and wellness,” Fried said.
McCarty expanded on the future of Beebe Healthcare, saying “At the current time, we are looking at something new in the south coastal area to relocate some services, but most of our growth is focused on expanding where we are currently located.”
Though debate has been sparked about moving the hospital out of Lewes to an area with more access and real estate, the board, according to McCarty, is only interested in keeping the hospital where it’s always been: right there on Savannah Road, where James and Richard first set up shop a century ago.