By Jennifer Neville, Of The Catholic Virginian

Weaving compassion and faith with cutting-edge medical care, Mary Immaculate Hospital (MIH) in Newport News has been caring for patients for 65 years despite challenges which threatened closure of the hospital several times in its history.

In 1952 the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters purchased Elizabeth Buxton Hospital which was the Peninsula’s first hospital when it opened in 1906 on the shores of Hampton Roads in Newport News.

Dr. Joseph Buxton opened the Peninsula’s first hospital in 1906 on the Newport News waterfront on Chesapeake Avenue. (Bon Secours Hampton Roads Spokesperson Lynne Zultanky defined the Peninsula as Hampton, Newport News and westward to Williamsburg.) The 17- bed private hospital eventually grew to the 114-bed facility that the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters purchased in 1952 and renamed Mary Immaculate Hospital. It became a member of the Bon Secours Health System in 1996.

“The Buxton Hospital provided good quality care. When the sisters came in, they continued to provide good quality care, but they added an extra layer – a faith base which takes care of mind, body and spirit,” explained Lynne Zultanky, spokesperson for Bon Secours Hampton Roads.

Although seeing nuns in their long veils and habits was unique to the community, patients soon appreciated them and became confident in their care, so much so that generations of residents have sought healthcare there, said MIH Director of Mission Sister Bernard Marie Magill, OSF.

MIH staff celebrated the hospital’s 65 years of service to the community at a Mass followed by an employee celebration May 1 at the hospital. The members of the spiritual care team blessed the hands of staff at the celebration and on the units.

In remarks at the employee celebration, Darlene Stephenson, CEO of Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital, credited the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters and the Sisters of Bon Secours “for forming us into the great caregivers and healthcare professionals that we are.”

“They’ve given us their vision, their mission, their beliefs, their integrity, and I believe that everyone that’s part of Mary Immaculate team owns that, and we have pride in who we are and what we do,” she said.

Change came almost immediately after the sisters took over the hospital. At the time, black women and their babies were treated in the hospital’s maternity ward in the basement while others were treated in a ward on the second floor. Out of respect for the black women and babies and out of concern the newborns would be cold in the basement, “one of the first things” the sisters did was move the mothers and their infants to the second-floor maternity unit, Sister Bernard said.

The Bernardine Franciscan Sisters became the first hospital on the Peninsula to begin integrating patient rooms. When the sisters bought the hospital in 1952, black women and their infants were treated in the maternity ward in the basement while others were treated in a ward on the second floor. Out of concern for the wellbeing of their black patients, one of the sisters’ first endeavor was to move the black women and newborns to the second-level maternity unit.

Through the years MIH has become a pioneer in the medical field in Hampton Roads, Mrs. Zultanky said. It was the first in the area to offer renal dialysis (1973) computerized digital hearing aids (1988) and bone conduction hearing aids (1990). In 1971 MIH became the first hospital Hampton Roads to offer natural childbirth classes and to allow fathers in the delivery room.

The opening of a consolidated surgical center in 2004 has allowed orthopedic surgeons to perform many “firsts” in the area, making the hospital known for its orthopedic care, Mrs. Zultanky said. Its orthopedic surgeons were the first in Hampton Roads to perform the minimally invasive Jiffy Hip operation in 2006 and a lumbar disk replacement in 2008. In 2012 the hospital was the first in the area to use the Makoplasty robotic surgical system for joint replacement surgeries.

MIH reaches out to the Peninsula community in several ways; some of which are health education at several sites, healthcare for the uninsured through a mobile clinic and life coaches in its emergency room “to help patients connect to social services to ensure that they have access to medication or transportation to medical appointments,” Mrs. Zultanky said.

“The beautiful thing about Mary Immaculate is it has moved along with the times,” Sister Bernard said.

Today the MIH campus has grown to include the surgical pavilion, medical offices, and a conference center which provides educational health promotion programs for the community. St. Francis Nursing Care Center, a 115-bed skilled and intermediate care center, is on property adjacent to the hospital campus.

MIH has had a rocky path at times. By 1961 the original hospital was showing such signs of disrepair that local engineers deemed it potentially hazardous for inpatients. Threatened with closure of the hospital, the community responded with a fund drive that raised nearly $1.3 million for a new wing for patient rooms.

Gradually the population of Newport News began to shift north. A declining population in the hospital’s immediate area resulted in financial challenges for MIH, and in 1971 the facility once more faced closure. The community successfully appealed to the sisters and the bishop to keep the hospital open.

In the mid-seventies, the sisters realized MlH would have to relocate if it were “to survive the increasingly competitive environment,” according to a press release detailing the hospital’s history. Although hundreds of people attended public hearings to support the hospital’s relocation to Hampton in 1975, state health officials denied the request. Two years later when the hospital proposed relocating to the Denbigh area of Newport News, Peninsula residents once again crowded public hearings to support the move, but “strong opposition from local health agencies and neighboring hospitals” prompted state health authorities to recommend denial. Nevertheless the state health commissioner approved the hospital’s request. The opposition from competing organizations continued, but after a lawsuit the Circuit Court of Henrico County and the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the hospital.

Ground breaking was in August 1978 for the $10 Million facility at its current location in Denbigh, and the 110-bed hospital opened in November 1980. The hospital which now has expanded to 123 rooms was the first in Hampton Roads to have all private patient rooms.

Sister Bernard said when MIH later became part of the Bon Secours Health System, it “added a richness” as the two orders blended their values and traditions to “live out the mission of Jesus Christ.”

“We minister to the patients, and we love them, and they know that,” Sister Bernard proclaimed during her homily at the celebration Mass. “And what we do is we make a difference. And we don’t make a difference because we have to. We make a difference because we choose to.”