wuesthoff board photo from Greg Daniels

Space Coast Health Foundation seeks to create a legacy of wellness for Brevard County

The Space Coast Health Foundation (SCHF) was established on October 1, 2010 using the proceeds from the sale of Wuesthoff Health System. By continuing the long, proud and distinguished history of serving the people of Brevard County, the foundation intends to expand upon its roots and enhance the health and wellness of individuals and communities. The foundation is a public charity working on collaborative projects that will meet the healthcare needs of our community. These needs are chosen by using focus groups, one-on-one interviews and quantitative research to determine specific community health needs.

A Small Community Creates its Own Hospital

The time was 1939 and the world was on the brink of war. Germany attacked Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany. Americans, wondering if the United States soon would be drawn into the escalating war in Europe, huddled anxiously by their radios to listen to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt deliver his regularly scheduled “fireside chats.”

Closer to home, the 3,000 residents of Cocoa and 700 residents of Rockledge were growing increasingly concerned about how their healthcare needs were being met. At the time, the Brevard County Medical Society consisted of only 11 physicians. The closest medical facility, a small hospital in Melbourne (which would eventually become Holmes Regional Medical Center), was nearly a one-hour drive away.

Rockledge physician Thomas Kenaston, M.D., and the Rev. William Hargrave, president of the Greater Cocoa Chamber of Commerce, began promoting the idea of a community-based hospital to serve the area. The idea became reality thanks, in large part, to the heirs of a Midwestern businessman.

Eugene Wuesthoff, a resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, spent many winters along the quiet banks of the Indian River in Rockledge. He had long envisioned a hospital that would serve the local riverside community. In 1940, his heirs made a gift of $12,500 to the hospital “building drive” with the condition that it be met by a matching contribution from the community.

The Greater Cocoa Chamber of Commerce organized a fund-raising campaign that motivated more than 500 people to donate to the hospital fund. Robert Schlernitzauer, M.D., Mayor of Rockledge, persuaded the City Council to donate the former golf course at the Indian River Hotel as the site for the small hospital.

As a result of these efforts, Eugene Wuesthoff Memorial Hospital, a 10-bed, private, not-for-profit hospital was created.

First Patient Treated

Eugene Wuesthoff Memorial Hospital was scheduled to open December 15, 1941, but actually treated its first patient the evening before. Carlos Bullock, a young highway patrol officer, had been injured in a motorcycle accident on nearby U.S. Highway 1. He was rushed to Wuesthoff Hospital where he was treated successfully for multiple injuries, including a fractured back and punctured lung.

“If not for the efficient care of the nurses and the good doctors, I wouldn’t be here right now,” Bullock explained during an interview years after the accident.

Wuesthoff officially opened with a staff consisting of three physicians, one surgeon, two nurses, an orderly, a cook and an administrator. Approximately 250 patients were admitted during the hospital’s first year of operation.

A Glimpse into the Future

By the mid-1940s, the world had entered a new age – the Atomic Age. Harry S. Truman was President and, although World War II had ended, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had begun.

United States leaders began heavily promoting and celebrating American nationalism. During the next few decades, this nationalism would be demonstrated in such ways as increased military spending and a race to the moon, both of which significantly would affect Brevard County and its healthcare needs.

During Wuesthoff Hospital’s first ten years of operation, its leadership provided a glimpse of how the hospital would operate during future decades. Decisions would be based on meeting both the community’s current and anticipated healthcare needs.

The hospital added two wings and a nurses’ home on its grounds during the 1940s, all designed to keep up with the community’s projected growth and need for increased healthcare services.

By the end of the decade the hospital, now at approximately 20 beds, was:

Giant Steps

The 1950s were known as the American Decade. U.S. economic growth produced an abundance of consumer goods. America was the undisputed global leader. The ongoing Cold War brought increased U.S. military spending.

For the 24,000 residents of Brevard County, that meant Patrick Air Force Base, located in Central Brevard, was growing. The base, formerly a Naval Air Station, now was the East Coast headquarters for the United States’ military space launch operations. This new growth created numerous spin-off businesses surrounding the base, as well as more civilian and military jobs. These new jobs also meant more newcomers to the county. Local communities began to grow.

Wuesthoff Hospital’s leadership determined that their hospital, the only one serving North and Central Brevard, needed to double in size to meet this new and growing demand.

“It is obvious that our present facilities cannot long remain adequate if the present growth pattern continues,” said Dr. Kenaston, Wuesthoff’s first medical director, in the hospital’s 1954 annual report. Kenaston, who helped kick off the hospital fund-raising campaign a decade earlier, continued, “If we are to keep pace with the community, we must start planning for the future.”

The hospital, now incorporated and formally known as Wuesthoff Memorial Hospital, added new medical equipment, an obstetrical suite, a laboratory, an emergency room, new modern kitchen facilities, a laundry facility and a solarium.

Even with the opening of the Patrick Air Force Base hospital, which served the military community, and a public hospital in Titusville (Jess Parrish Memorial Hospital), which began operations toward the end of the decade, Wuesthoff – by now a 45-bed hospital – often was filled beyond capacity, admitting as many as 65 patients a day.

Runners Take Your Marks

To begin the 1960s, a decade that sustained one of the longest economic booms on record in the Free World, President John F. Kennedy shot the starter’s gun for the race to the moon.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” President Kennedy said during a special message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs in 1961.

As a result, the space program at Cape Canaveral, located in North Brevard, was flourishing – as were the multitude of technical companies and jobs that were created in and around North and Central Brevard County. A fourth hospital (Cape Canaveral Hospital), located in Cocoa Beach, began operation in Brevard – by now the fastest-growing county in the Nation with 111,000 residents.

To keep up with the growth and increased need for quality healthcare, Wuesthoff again answered the call from its community to expand. Wuesthoff’s goal was to provide the area with a full range of medical services – services that usually were found in much more populous areas.

“The master dream for this hospital is a medical center with all services available here,” said J. William Ettinger, M.D., president of Wuesthoff Hospital’s medical staff in 1964. “We must work toward that dream.”

During the decade, Wuesthoff built a four-story addition. Only two stories were set up for hospital services – which increased its beds to 160. The top two floors were walled off until future healthcare demand warranted their opening.

Also added during the 1960s were a high-tech blood chemistry lab, a 10-bed psychiatric unit, two intensive care units and a computer lab. By now, Wuesthoff’s medical staff consisted of 40 active physicians.

A Mouse Moves to Central Florida

While the rest of the world during the 1970s suffered from a severe recession, continued tension at geopolitical hotspots throughout the globe, and energy and resource shortages, Florida’s population and economy grew – thanks, in part, to a cartoon mouse.

In the mid-1970s, Walt Disney World opened in Orlando and transformed Central Florida into a premier tourist destination. The Orlando airport, once a two-airline way station, grew to include virtually all major national and international airlines. Orlando vied for tourists not merely country-wide but world-wide.

Brevard County, a one-hour drive from Orlando, continued to grow, too. Its population was now 252,000 and was projected to grow to 300,000 by 1980. The population, however, was changing.

Brevard, once the youngest county in the state, now was growing older. At the beginning of the decade, 12 percent of the patients admitted to Wuesthoff Hospital were of Medicare age; by the end of the decade, that figure had risen to 45 percent. The shift in population meant Wuesthoff Hospital needed to adapt to new healthcare challenges. It did so, and underwent the largest remodeling and construction project in its history.

During the decade, Wuesthoff completed the top two floors of its four-story renovation started the previous decade and increased its capacity to 260 beds. It also became the first hospital in the county to establish nuclear medicine and physical therapy departments.

Following his 1976 election to a second term as chairman of Wuesthoff’s Board of Trustees, Wesley Houser explained that although the healthcare environment was changing, Wuesthoff’s commitment to the community would remain steadfast. “We will never turn a patient away because of his or her financial position,” Houser said. “It doesn’t matter if the person is a millionaire or a poverty-stricken transient. If they are ill, we are here to admit and help them.”

By the end of the decade, Wuesthoff added new units, departments, facilities and services. These included a 30-bed psychiatric unit, an intensive care unit, a modern 16-bed intensive care unit/cardiac care unit, a central sterile supply department, a radiology department, an expanded dietary department, a new obstetrical area including a nursery lab and delivery and recovery rooms, renovated emergency and operating rooms, an expanded area for new X-ray facilities and more medical/surgical beds.

Wuesthoff now had 73 active medical staff members and 700 employees.

Breaking Paradigms

The 1980s ushered in the Computer Age, and with it, a thirst for new technology and methods. The decade, which began with a recession, featured the longest economic boom in U.S. history. It also was highlighted by an unprecedented bull market and the infamous stock market crash of 1987.

In healthcare, local hospitals found themselves navigating the ups and downs of an increasingly complex field. Yet Wuesthoff continued to thrive. While a dramatic number of hospitals were closing, according to national statistics, Wuesthoff constructed a new five-story addition, underwent numerous renovations and created Wuesthoff Health System, a new corporate organization comprises Wuesthoff Hospital and a variety of newly created satellite medical offices and innovative healthcare services.

Although Wuesthoff incorporated many new technologies in the services it offered, such as laser lithotripsy surgery for treatment of kidney stones and cardiac catheterization for diagnostic testing and therapeutic treatment of heart disease, it also remained focused on the human factor – patient care and wellness.

In this effort, Wuesthoff boasted Brevard County’s only lab for sleep apnea, the county’s first licensed Hospice program, the county’s only in-hospital psychiatric unit, the county’s first hospital-based homecare agency, the county’s only Child Protection Team agency and Central Brevard’s first hospital-based fitness center.

With a staff of 1,500 employees and 150 medical personnel, Wuesthoff capped off the decade by providing Brevard County with more than 17 affiliated programs and satellite facilities offering services such as medical care, obstetrics and gynecology, and fitness and lifestyle management.

Committed to a Higher Standard

From the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the healthcare field underwent dramatic change. Hospitals began merging to form ever more giant conglomerates. When looking at how Wuesthoff Hospital could best serve the healthcare needs of the community, not just in the next few years, but over the next few decades, Wuesthoff’s leadership decided to buck this trend.

“We believed the community’s healthcare needs could best be met by a community hospital that offered a multitude of outpatient and satellite services, in addition to state-of-the-art in-patient and out-patient hospital services,” explained Wuesthoff’s senior vice-president and chief operating officer. “Our goal was to provide a higher standard of healthcare, not a higher number of hospital beds.”

Wuesthoff’s leadership also recognized the need and importance to educate the community on health and wellness issues. As a result, Wuesthoff created a variety of community education outreach initiatives that included support groups, health fairs, a speakers bureau and seniors’ group.

Wuesthoff Health System comprised Wuesthoff Medical Center—Rockledge and Wuesthoff Medical Center—Melbourne, both full acute care hospitals; Wuesthoff Health Services, a network of affiliates providing hospice, homecare, fitness, home medical equipment, skilled nursing care and assisted living services to the community and Wuesthoff Health System Foundation, a non-profit organization created solely to provide funds to enhance and expand the services of Wuesthoff Health System.

Wuesthoff Health System employed more than 2,000 men and women and has a medical staff of almost 500 physicians.

In December 2002, Wuesthoff Medical Center—Melbourne opened on Wickham Road, just north of NASA Boulevard and south of Sarno Road in Melbourne. Constructed as a 200-bed hospital, Wuesthoff Medical Center—Melbourne was originally licensed for 100 beds and is a full-service, all-private room, acute care hospital.

At the same time, Wuesthoff Hospital in Rockledge became known as Wuesthoff Medical Center—Rockledge.

Wuesthoff Health System continued the mission until September 30, 2010 when it sold its assets to Health Management Associates (HMA), who retained the Wuesthoff name and continued to provide healthcare services to the county.  Using the proceeds from the sale, the Space Coast Health Foundation was created, and more history is in the making . . . .

Historic Photos of Wuesthoff