A Century of Care : Lee Memorial Health System Turns 100!



    In 1912 a group of civic-minded citizens banded under the Lee County Hospital Association to secure a site, raise funds, and garner support for Southwest Florida’s first hospital. When it opened as a private, not-for profit facility at Grand and Victoria Avenues on October 3, 1916, the 4-room hospital accommodated 15 patients, with two day nurses who went home each evening.

    Kevin Newingham, Chief Strategy Officer for Lee Memorial Health System
    Kevin Newingham, Chief Strategy Officer for Lee Memorial Health System.

    “Today our hospitals operate 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week, and our more than 4,000 nurses are there day and night, of course,” reassures Kevin Newingham, Chief Strategy Officer for Lee Memorial Health System, to be renamed Lee Health on October 5. “When Lee County Hospital began, our community had roughly 3,300 residents; now we alone have over 13,000 employees, and serve approximately one million people including vacationers and seasonals. We started with just a few physicians; now the community is served by more than 1,000 specialists and sub-specialists.”

    The genesis of Lee Health is one of the most colorful episodes in Southwest Florida history that ultimately led to the area’s first hospital. In 1914 the Lee County Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to build a new courthouse, over the vocal objection of numerous town residents who sought an injunction to halt the demolition and replacement of the old building.

    Commission Chair Bill Towles took matters into his own hands by organizing supporters to dismantle the courthouse by the light of a bonfire prior to the injunction. Those who saw the spectacle say Commissioner Towles sat on the steps holding a shotgun, should anyone require additional convincing! His people saved the courthouse wood and reused it two years later to build Lee County Hospital.

    “It is amazing that Lee Health grew from that original two-story wooden building without air conditioning or an elevator to what we are now,” marvels Kevin. “We went from that simple single structure to a six-hospital health system with a vast array of services including primary and specialty care physicians, a home health agency, nursing home, outpatient services and facilities and more. Then as now, it grew to meet Southwest Florida’s ever-expanding needs.”


    Dr. David McSwain, Lee Memorial
    Dr. David McSwain of Arcadia was Lee Memorial’s first surgeon.

    Build It & He Will Come

    One of those who tore down the old courthouse and saved the lumber for the hospital turned out to be its first patient: a tough 39-year-old man named Sam Thompson. In the fall of 1916, Thompson was on horseback in the woods near LaBelle when stricken with abdominal pain that turned out to be appendicitis, and somehow rode all the way to the new hospital. The only available surgeon was Dr. David McSwain of Arcadia, who took a train to Fort Myers that night, arriving at 10 p.m. and operated on Thompson one hour later, illuminated by a kerosene lamp. Thompson lived into his 80s, becoming a prominent and successful businessman.

    “Staff sterilized instruments over a hot stove, the same one they used to prepare food,” Kevin says. “Employees chopped wood to maintain the heat. We still use steam but in state-of-the-art equipment. Air conditioning was decades in the future, so summer was stifling. When you think back, current technology seems all the more remarkable, with computerized records and physicians able to consult with each other and their patients on a global scale. It is these innovations I find most remarkable, when you consider our humble beginnings.”

    Theo Ellis became the first operating room nurse in 1922 and continued in that position for 47 years.
    Theo Ellis became the first operating room nurse in 1922 and continued in that position for 47 years.

    Lee County Hospital expanded just two year later, adding two wings and a third floor operating room, but still no elevator so staff carried patients up and down the stairs to their rooms. In 1922, it hired Theo Ellis as its first operating room nurse; she would remain in that capacity for the next 47 years! 1924 featured the founding of Jones-Walker Hospital for “colored” patients on High Street, before relocating to Blount Street in 1948. Jones-Walker was operated as a department of Lee Memorial Hospital.

    Conversely, The United Daughters of the Confederacy led the push to change the hospital name to Robert E. Lee Memorial Hospital in recognition of the South’s top general during the Civil War, later shortened to Lee Memorial Hospital. It did not integrate with the Jones-Walker facility until 1966, occurring controversially so during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement.


    “Nicest Place Possible”

    Lee County Hospital moved to the current Cleveland Avenue site as Lee Memorial Hospital, a 30-bed structure in 1943, with The News-Press describing it as “just about the nicest place possible to be sick in.” Twenty-five years later, hospital ownership changed from a private corporation to an elected public body after receiving legislative and voter approval, and constructed the new $5.5-million hospital that employed 650 people. In 1950, twenty-six women founded the Lee Memorial Auxiliary; presently 4,500 volunteers contribute one-half-million hours of service and donate $1.4 million. By 1959, the average cost for one day of hospitalization rose to $29.45!

    Expansion continued fast-&-furious. Oncologist Ellen Sayet in 1973 became the first female physician. The next year, Jim Nathan joined the health system as an administrative resident before becoming its president in 1982, remaining through today. “Jim Nathan is a visionary,” Kevin explains. “He led our transformation from one hospital to our large system, with patience, wisdom, and unsurpassed leadership.”

    The beginning of the 1990s witnessed Lee Memorial Health System become “one hospital – two locations” when HealthPark Medical Center opened with 220 beds in South Lee County. “I happily can dispel the urban legend that HealthPark was a bankrupt hotel we purchased and renovated into a hospital,” Kevin humorously says. “We built it that way to move away from the institutional feel of most hospitals. The multistory atrium is bright and full of life; with children’s art projects, volunteers playing music and making popcorn, and Holiday choirs. These amenities are as important to caregivers as to patients, because spending all your time with a hospitalized loved one can be demanding. These outlets provide you the means to exhale.”

    The 98-bed Children’s Hospital headquartered inside HealthPark in 1994, while Southwest Florida’s own Level II Trauma Center opened at Lee Memorial Hospital. The system acquired Cape Coral Hospital in 1996, started Lee Convenient Care on Cleveland Avenue in 2004, and acquired Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center and Gulf Coast Hospital in 2006. It began The Regional Cancer Center in 2008, and in 2015 started the Shipley Center for Cardiothoracic Surgery, Innovation, Education and Research.


    HealthPark Hospital today
    HealthPark Hospital today

    The Future is Now

    The future is already under construction or on the drawing board. Golisano Children’s Hospital will expand into its brand new state-of-the art tower in 2017. Gulf Coast Hospital will undergo a 275-bed expansion, and plans are underway for the innovative Lee Health at Coconut Point including a freestanding emergency center.

    Lee Memorial Hospital today
    Lee Memorial Hospital today

    “Lee Health is your active partner to monitor and manage your health; to keep you in your own home and away from hospitalization when possible,” summarizes Kevin. “What surprises most people is only about 20 percent of all Emergency Room patients are admitted to the hospital; the rest are there for a diagnosis and intervention and then released. Technology already connects you to the appropriate medical provider through your cell phone in real time, like with Telestroke. Programmed prescription dispensers distribute the right pill at the right time, so especially seniors do not over- or under-medicate from forgetfulness. My Chart allows you to monitor your condition, records and appointments from your house. This is an exciting time for Lee Health.”

    Lee Memorial’s early nursing staff
    Lee Memorial’s early nursing staff

    Upon reflection, Kevin chuckles when saying that “the flip side is, I was reading a news clipping from 1950, recounting how there were not enough doctors and nurses to care for the population at that time, and that is still a primary issue today. It made me realize that, even after a century of service and all our growth and improvements, some things never change!”

    To learn about Lee Health’s first 100 years, see www.LeeMemorial.org/100-years-of-caring. Lee Health: Caring People, Inspiring Health!



    Gary Mooney