HATTIESBURG — Even before the doors officially opened on July 15, 1952, the staff at Forrest General Hospital must have instinctively known that excellent customer service — back then it was ‘pure old kind-heartedness’ — would propel its growth.
“It was late at night and I was taking my wife to the Methodist Hospital to deliver our baby when I saw a light on in the new hospital,” said Fred K. Roberts of Purvis. “I knew it was supposed to open the next day so I went there to see if anyone was home and here comes a guard with a flashlight. The first thing he asked was, ‘do you have a granny case?’ — that’s what we called a baby 50 years ago — I said ‘yeah,’ and he said ‘well, go get her and bring her in. I’ve got four nurses waiting,’ so we did. The doctor came pretty quick, too, and we used the hospital quite a bit after that.”
His daughter, Sandra Kaye Roberts, was the first baby born at Forrest General Hospital, delivered by Dr. Ramsey O’Neal.
“Because she was the first baby born there, a lot of businesses in town gave us gifts and I’ll bet I went around town for a week collecting them all, probably 75 to 100,” Roberts said.
The send-off was an example of the community support the hospital received since its conception soon after World War II. The Hattiesburg Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce members), led by Bruce Aultman, initiated the movement for a new hospital for the 16-county area, and rallied the support of Forrest County supervisors and the medical community. The Methodist Hospital, chaired by W.S.F. Tatum, and South Mississippi Infirmary, owned by Dr. W.W. Crawford, did not provide enough hospital beds for the region to grow, and there were no planned expansions.
“When Moran Pope was president of the Jaycees and named me chairman of the public health committee, I was told there would be plenty for me to do,” said J. Martin Mooney, a retired attorney from Seminary who lived and worked in Hattiesburg in the mid-1940s. “This was around the time that the Jaycees were advancing the idea of a need for a new hospital. It hadn’t gathered much support and we had to get the public behind us. So we took the ball and ran with it. I remember sending letters to just about every doctor in Hattiesburg for one of the first public meetings and only two showed up and only one, Dr. J.P. Culpepper, who later performed the first surgery at Forrest General (along with Dr. Nollie Felts Sr.), spoke up in support of the project.”
Public support for the new hospital began to increase after an in-depth report on the medical crisis appeared in the March 19, 1946, edition of the Hattiesburg American. One part of the report read: “After a recent automobile accident, five injured people were taken to the Methodist Hospital. There was room for only one. Two dead persons were left lying in the hall until arrangements could be made with a funeral home. The injured had to wait a considerable length of time before they could be taken care of.”
That same year, the public health committee presented the idea to Forrest County supervisors. The Hattiesburg-Forrest County Hospital Council was established to address details of the plan. Led by John Drew, other service organizations became involved. On a referendum vote held Nov. 18, 1947, citizens approved a $350,000 bond issue 2,810 to 502. The land for the site was $12,000, and construction of the 90-bed hospital cost roughly $1.3 million. State and federal funds helped finance part of the balance. When the hospital opened, Reagan Long, who was hired as the first administrator on Nov. 15, 1951, supervised 70 employees.
In 1963, less than a year after Lowrey A. Woodall took over as administrator, Forrest General became self-sustaining and has remained so.
“One of the major challenges when I took over in June 1962 was the financial aspect of the hospital,” said Woodall, now a management consultant for the hospital. “The second biggest challenge was recruiting competent physicians, specialists and super specialists. Unfortunately, for many years, we had to convince people that weren’t familiar with Mississippi and/or Hattiesburg that we wore shoes. So the image (problem) had to be overcome to interest people. Once you got them to visit Hattiesburg and they saw the potential, it was a different story.”
In 1990, in part because of Forrest General’s contributions to the community, The Rating Guide to Life in America’s Small Cities ranked Hattiesburg No. 1 for quality of healthcare.
When Woodall retired Nov. 1, 1996, and handed the reins to William C. “Bill” Oliver, CPA, FHFMA, Dr. Gerald Gable called Woodall “the motivating factor in the advancement of medical care at Forrest General.”
“He never turned down, to my knowledge, any legitimate request for a piece of equipment that improved the quality of medical care,” he said.
Woodall also spearheaded the hospital’s aggressive building program. In the recently released book, The Evolution of a Regional Referral Center: A Prophecy Fulfilled, covering 50 years of Forrest General’s growth, John D.W. Guice wrote: “Old-timers could not remember another Hattiesburg construction project that created as much conversation as the foundation of Phase IV — a foundation designed to support as many as 15 floors.”
Forrest General has grown 10 times the size of the original four-story brick building. Today, more than 3,200 employees work for the multi-campus tertiary referral center, which has 537 beds and treatment facilities in Hattiesburg. It consists of a 429-bed acute care facility; Pine Grove, an 88-bed chemical dependency and psychiatric unit; Rehab Resource, a 20-bed rehabilitation unit; Lowery A. Woodall Outpatient Surgery Facility; and Forrest General Home Care. The hospital recently became the first in Mississippi to be fully designated a Level II trauma center.
“Hospital organizations like Forrest General aren’t just brick-and-mortar,” said Woodall. “That’s a necessity, but the process involves competent, dedicated people. I’ve always advocated that the biggest asset the hospital possessed didn’t appear on the balance sheet.”
The advent of technology and the recruitment of physicians in cardiology have been major contributors to the hospital’s growth, Woodall said.
“The demand was generated by the ability to provide the services required of people,” he said. “Hattiesburg is an ideal geographical location in South Mississippi, and with the improvements in highways and transportation, it easily evolved into a regional medical center.”
The lack of long-term reimbursement is a critical factor that could hinder the hospital’s growth, said Oliver.
“The reimbursement situation for the future will be more challenging with the aging population and reduced funding from governmental programs, both Medicare and Medicaid,” he said. “I’m concerned the demands will exceed the capacity.”
Recruiting physicians has been more challenging recently because of the current legal climate in Mississippi, Oliver said.
“We’ve been fortunate to this point,” he said. “I hope we can get some resolution (on tort reform or medical malpractice rates) in the next year. If not, it will definitely affect our physicians staying in the state and it will really affect our ability to recruit physicians.”
The hospital’s aggressive building plan will continue, but perhaps inside rather than outside, Oliver said.
“The biggest area of emphasis will probably be new equipment,” he said. “We’ll have to look at that probably as a higher priority than actual buildings. Again, if reimbursement can allow it, there cert
y appears to be a demand for more building.
“Although times have gotten much more challenging, our future looks bright with the opportunities of meeting the needs of the community. As long as we continue to do that, we can continue to be a positive part of the economy.”