Eupora — Reflecting on a 46-year career in healthcare administration, Harold Whitaker has seen many changes. The Clarksdale native recently retired after 32 years as administrator of the Eupora Hospital, a part of the North Mississippi Medical Center (NMMC) system.
It all began in 1959 when he came back to Mississippi after serving in the Army in Frankfurt, Germany. Whitaker graduated from Mississippi State College and was a public accountant before entering military service. He says a change of heart while in the Army led him to become assistant administrator of the Greenwood-Leflore Hospital.
“When I came back, I wanted to be involved with people, and people have been the heart and soul of my career,” he said. “I hadn’t planned on going into healthcare. On the way to the interview in Greenwood I was thinking how I didn’t even like hospitals and wondering why I was going.”
But he took the hospital job, and it turned out to be the right place for him. He soon met his future wife, Pearl, who was working in the business office there. They’ve been married 46 years, and he calls her his partner. It also was the beginning of his life’s work.
“I’ve seen significant changes in those years. Private patient rooms used to cost $12 a day and semi-privates were $6,” he said. “Technology has been a huge change. It’s wonderful to see how it impacts patients.”
One of his duties as an assistant administrator in Greenwood included the time- consuming task of cleaning and resharpening glass syringes. The convenience of a simple thing like disposable syringes is an important change to Whitaker.
He says that proportionally to other things, rising healthcare costs are reflective of the national economy. Healthcare costs draw more attention, he feels, because it’s personal and involves numbers.
“In 1968, I worked with the State Board of Health in licensure and certification,” he said. “We bought a brick house in Jackson for $20,200. It would cost $130,000 for one today of comparable size in Eupora.”
He has seen new schools for allied health open, an increase in the demand for professional competencies and hospitals that stood on their own become affiliated with systems. He thinks those are trends that will continue.
“It was the only answer for our area,” he said. “We were not economically blessed to be able to sustain the level of healthcare we wanted here. It was a decision of wanting to grow or not.”
The Eupora Hospital affiliated with NMMC in 1988. Whitaker says the hospital would not be where it is today without that affiliation. “That was not the fashionable thing to do when we did it, but it was the right thing for us to do,” he said. “It has been a happy partnership. There’s no way we could have what we have without it.”
He says the Eupora Hospital and NMMC had good boards who made the merger a smooth one. The local hospital was able to build a $10-million facility two years ago, purchase diagnostic equipment and offer the latest programs in women and children’s healthcare. Located in Webster County with a population of 13,000, Eupora is ideally located for a large medical trade area with the contiguous counties.
“We meet their needs, and they return,” Whitaker said. “We have a wonderful facility and access to resources. It’s very modern, and there’s not another one like it in rural Mississippi.”
He says the facility is good, but brick and mortar don’t provide medical service. It’s the people working there who do that. “We have really good health professionals and dedicated people who are not health professionals,” he said.
The hospital has believed in medical education. Often, students educated with those scholarships have come back to serve in the community. The establishment of the Harold H. Whitaker Educational Scholarship was announced at his retirement reception. Friends, colleagues and the directors, physicians and employees of NMMC-Eupora started it. Income from the endowment’s annual earnings will be used to provide a $1,000 educational scholarship for a Webster County high school graduate. The Health Care Foundation of North Mississippi, the charitable entity of NMMC, will administer the scholarship, which will be available for the first time to the graduating class of 2006.
“Harold dedicated his personal and professional life to serving the needs of his family, neighbors and community and to improving the health of the people of Webster County and the surrounding area,” said NMMC vice president Bob Jones when he announced the scholarship.”In honor of his lifetime of service and leadership, we have established this fund.”
Whitaker said he was overwhelmed by the scholarship. “It was an humbling experience,” he said. “It blew me away.”
The 70-year-old says he misses going to the hospital every day. “It’s difficult, but it’s good to lay my head down on the pillow at night and know I did my best to touch lives in a positive way,” he said. “God’s blessed me. I’ve been blessed to know so many people, and they are all like family to me.”
He says that for the first time, he’s in his wife’s space. The two of them are taking a few months to get their feet on the ground before making any commitments to travel or do anything else. He enjoys playing golf and deer hunting. They both like to fish, so they’ll probably buy a fishing boat.
The Whitakers have a son, Whit, a daughter, Cathy Pendleton, and five grandchildren. They were surprised at the reception when a portrait of the retiring administrator, painted by their daughter, was unveiled.
Many members of the community and hospital staff turned out to give thanks and words of praise for Harold Whitaker’s long years of dedicated service to healthcare.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.