Mercy Berryville celebrates a half-century of service

Friday, September 20, 2019
Construction on Carroll General Hospital began in September 1968, and the hospital opened its doors on Sept. 15, 1969. The hospital celebrated its 50th anniversary on Sunday.
Photo courtesy of Mercy Hospital Berryville

By Scott Loftis

Mercy Hospital Berryville celebrated its 50th anniversary with the Carroll County community on Sunday, Sept. 15.

From humble beginnings — the hospital’s first medical staff meeting was held in the dining room of Town & Country Bowling Lanes on July 14, 1969 — through changes in technology and a difficult financial and regulatory environment that has left many small towns without a hospital, Mercy Berryville has been a constant resource for the community it serves.

Early years

Construction of the hospital began on Sept. 20, 1968, and the building was completed at a cost of $753,000. While a portion of the money came from the federal government under the 1946 Hill-Burton Hospital Survey and Construction Act — passed to answer President Harry S. Truman’s call for improvements in America’s hospital system — it was the passage of a 3.5-mill tax by the voters of Carroll County that provided the final $360,000 to complete the hospital’s construction.

The hospital, located at 214 Carter St. in Berryville, was built on land purchased from the late Rea Nelson, founder of Berryville’s Nelson Funeral Home.

“The people of Carroll County and this area wanted a hospital so bad they were willing to do whatever it took,” said longtime Berryville insurance agent Richard Harp, who was chairman of the hospital’s first board of directors and has served a total of 33 years on the board.

“We had a lot of movers and shakers back then, probably a half dozen or a dozen guys that would take the ball and run with it. They decided we were going to have a hospital over in this part of the county. So they went out and talked it up, raised the money to buy the land.

“Then we had to sell the public on passing a bond issue,” Harp recalled. “Back in those days, bond issues were harder than they are now. Things were tighter and people just didn’t have the funds they do now.”

Even so, Carroll County’s voters overwhelmingly voted to support the new hospital.

“We passed it in the Eastern District 90 percent to 10,” Harp said. “That’s one heck of a vote, on anything. The Eastern District voted it down, but we still carried it county-wide, probably two-thirds, 70 percent countywide.”

The hospital’s first board of directors included Harp, the late A.K. Dodgen Jr., the late J. Frank Stafford, the late Madrene Morris, the late H.B. Gibson, the late Hoyt Pinkley and the late C.H. Sugg.

“These were all prominent people in the community,” Harp said.

The hospital’s first medical staff included Dr. Oliver Wallace, Dr. R.A. Etherington, Dr. Charles Poynor, Dr. Wayne Jones, a Dr. Van Pelt, Dr. Robert Spurlin and Dr. R.P. Spurlin. Wallace was elected to serve as the hospital’s first chief of staff, while Jones was elected to serve as the medical staff’s first executive secretary.

In fact, Harp said Jones was instrumental in the hospital’s history.

“Dr. Jones was the real impetus behind this hospital,” Harp said. “He probably did more personally than all the rest of us put together. He would not let it fall or fail to happen. He was very passionate about the hospital.”

The hospital officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sept. 15, 1969.

“I’ll never forget, this is still with me,” Harp said. “A lot of the older citizens were crying. I actually could see tears in their eyes. The closest hospital was Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Springfield, maybe Harrison. And some of those older people were actually crying. I’ll never forget it.”

On its first day, the hospital admitted six patients. The first was Ellis Bradley, was transferred from the old Berryville Hospital. Two other patients later came from the old hospital, while one was transferred from a nursing home, another came from Boone County Hospital and another was a direct admission.

According to a hospital census for the period from Sept. 15 through Sept. 30, 1969, a total of 26 patients were admitted for a total of 181 days of care.

Financial obstacles

The hospital began with 40 employees and a combined annual payroll of $165,000. Keeping those employees paid was a challenge.

“Lo and behold, as smart as all these people were, we didn’t have any money to open. Zero,” Harp said. “So what we had to do, me and Madrene Morris, we actually went to First National Bank of Berryville and borrowed money to make the payrolls and pay our vendors. And to this day, I don’t know why we didn’t do a better job of trying to fund it. But we didn’t ask for any funds in the millage to help operate it.”

Still, the hospital continued to operate. Donations from the community helped during the difficult early months. Individuals and civic groups contributed a total of $29,000 to help furnish the original 14 patient rooms, lobby and nursery.

“The people who lived here would not let it fall, would not let it fail — just like they won’t today,” Harp said. “We’ve got the same spirit today as far as community involvement, I think, that we had back then.”

Changes, expansion

The hospital has gone through several name and organizational changes in its history. It was first renamed Carroll General Hospital, then became Carroll Regional Medical Center in 1995 and St. John’s Hospital in 2003 before taking its current name in 2012. The hospital has been affiliated with the Sisters of Mercy Health System, based in St. Louis, since 1997.

That same year, the hospital began a two-year, $5 million expansion and remodeling project, which included the expansion of the emergency room, cardiopulmonary rehabilitation and surgery. The emergency room was relocated to the east side of the building, the hospital’s main entrance was relocated to face Orchard Street, and the west side of the building — where the main entrance had been located — became the back of the hospital. The expansion added 28,000 square feet, bringing the hospital to a total of 72,000 square feet.

Dr. Bill Flake, a surgeon who has worked at Mercy Berryville since 1981 and now runs the hospital’s wound care clinic, said Mercy has helped keep the hospital viable.

“The mid-90s was a crisis time for small hospitals and doctor practices,” he said. “They were being acquired by various medical groups. We had to have help. Small hospitals had to have help from bigger hospitals or hospital groups. We had a lot of options as to who to take on as our big brother, and we chose Mercy. Several of us had worked at Catholic hospitals in the past and knew that at the top, the mission was pure. The nuns, they’re about healthcare. So we remained mission-oriented as an organization and that was very important to all of us. Mercy over the years has been extremely generous and supportive.”

Mercy Berryville today

The hospital’s current administrator is VonDa Moore, who also serves as the director of nursing. An Oklahoma native who has served in places including Hawaii and Saudi Arabia, Moore says she came to this area, and to Mercy, intentionally.

“I will tell you on a personal level, the reason I chose to come here is because I wanted to be part of Mercy and I wanted to be part of Northwest Arkansas,” Moore said. “I intentionally had been watching Mercy and wanted to align myself. I’ve had some great opportunities to work for different systems, but Mercy to me is tops. I love it here. I really do.”

Moore acknowledges that operating a rural hospital presents its own unique challenges but she points that it also presents unique opportunities.

“I think everybody has challenges within healthcare right now,” she said. “Rural healthcare, I think, has some of its own unique challenges. Some of that is resources, because you cannot afford to duplicate everything for this size of a facility. So some of those sub-specialties, you’re not going to be able to have. But I think on the other hand, the opportunities that you get are, you’re going to have more personalized service, to be able to have some continuity of care. Lots of times we hear people say that they know the people caring for them. You see the same patients coming back. And it’s a small enough community that if you don’t do a good job, you’ll hear about it. And that could be at Walmart or anywhere throughout the community. So maybe it helps keep us remembering the reason. I hope we always remember that.”

One of the challenges for virtually every rural hospital is recruiting and retaining physicians. Moore said Mercy Berryville has worked hard to add new doctors, with good success.

“We have made progress over the past year, which I’m really pleased about because that’s the foundation,” she said. “You have to have great people because I think you can only be as good as the people that you surround yourself with, and we’re in a people business. Our physicians are our backbone, and Rogers, Northwest Arkansas Mercy has done a really good job to help complement that. We’ve brought in Dr. (Jonathan) Fausett, who’s in practice now. We brought in Dr. (Aaron) Rowell, who’s been here a year now. We have an ED physician, Dr. (Jomo) Osborne. We’ve also added some nurse practitioners within the last year and a half.”

Mercy Berryville also has several long-serving doctors who have been fixtures in the community for decades — like Flake; Dr. Richard Taylor, a longtime family practice doctor who is now a hospitalist; Dr. Shannon Card; and Dr. Charles Horton.

“Very experienced, extremely knowledgeable,” Moore said. “And we have some of that longevity within the hospital, in our co-workers as well. And I think that says a lot, because there are other choices. People are very mobile these days. We have some staff that have been here long-term that live in other communities and drive here, 45 minutes to an hour. That’s kind of humbling to think that they’re going to make that commitment to be part of Mercy.”

While Mercy Berryville admittedly doesn’t offer all the specialty services that might be available at a larger urban hospital, Flake said some local residents might be surprised at what services are available.

“I’ve been doing colonoscopy here for 38 years and I still meet people who don’t know we do colonoscopy,” he said. “It’s a very well kept-up, well-administered, good rural hospital.”

In fact, Flake said in many cases a rural hospital can provide better care than a larger facility.

“If I need to be in a hospital for something that we can handle, I would much rather be in a good quality rural hospital than I would in a big, major-city hospital,” Flake said. “The ability to get much more attention, to stay closer to home — these are really important things. People who don’t appreciate that haven’t needed us.”

Moore said she viewed Sunday’s 50th anniversary festivities as both a celebration and a thanksgiving.

“We like to celebrate and I think that the co-workers here are very proud of being part of this community, being part of the hospital,” she said. “I think they’re very giving. They give back a lot. So this is just an opportunity to celebrate that. I look at it really as saying ‘thank you. Thank you for helping us be here and for the opportunity to serve.’ I mean that very sincerely. Not everybody gets that opportunity. … Thank you for allowing us to be here and we look forward to the next 50. It really is an honor.”

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