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Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Past, Present, Future

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Willis Knighton has been a leader in innovative health care for patients for 100 years.

Willis Knighton Health System celebrates 100 years of caring

Dr. James C. Willis and Dr. Joseph E. Knighton weren’t the first to open a modern hospital in Shreveport, but they embraced the concept of bringing care to patients’ doorsteps.

A century later, the Willis Knighton health network continues their legacy, providing services not just to Shreveport and Bossier City but also South Arkansas and East Texas. Willis Knighton is a destination for patients seeking everything from routine care to cancer treatment. Despite expansions and medical advances, Willis Knighton remains rooted in the community as a locally owned and operated, not-for-profit community health organization.

“We’ve been approached by other large systems across the country for acquisition reasons, but our philosophy over the years has remained the same,” says Willis Knighton CEO Jeff A. “Jaf” Fielder II. “We’ve got a local board of directors that is not interested in selling out and making a big profit for this area and putting it into a foundation. We want Willis Knighton to continue under the same strategic focus and strategic plan. You look at the continuity that we’ve had. You know, so many people have been here more than 40 years.”

That continuity extends from health care staff to the executive suite. Fielder is only the third CEO in Willis Knighton’s hundred-year history, succeeding James Elrod.

Dr. Joseph Knighton

James Elrod

Jaf Fielder

Dr. Willis and Dr. Knighton laid the foundation for that longevity. Both were small-town boys who grew up in Claiborne Parish and attended medical school in Tennessee. They practiced together in Homer, the Claiborne Parish seat, before moving to Shreveport, according to the late Eric J. Brock, a Shreveport historian. In the early 20th century, the two doctors practiced together at other Shreveport hospitals and leading professional organizations.

Dr. Willis and Dr. Knighton opened a clinic in Shreveport but outgrew the building. They moved to a larger office beside Tri-State Sanitarium in far west Shreveport. In 1929 they bought the sanitarium and renamed it Tri-State Hospital. It was a bold move because most medical practices were in or near downtown Shreveport. They remained involved in the hospital’s operations until their deaths. Dr. Knighton continued going to the office every day until a heart attack claimed his life in 1950.

Tri-State Sanitarium first opened in November 1924 at the corner of Greenwood Road and Virginia Avenue. Now Willis Knighton Medical Center and clinics cover every corner of the busy Greenwood Road — Hearne Avenue intersection. Expansion in the original location foretold the health system’s growth to every point of the compass.

“We were the first people to take health care to where people lived. We were at the end of the trolley line,” says Jim Roberts, curator of the Willis Knighton Talbot Medical Museum.

In the 1920s, Shreveport was spreading south and west, as trolley lines and roads made commuting more convenient. Affordable homes near the Louisiana State Fairgrounds attracted families who wanted more space. Subdivisions were modern enough to offer garages and utility services but rural enough that some homeowners kept a cow or two.

The city’s growth coincided with significant shifts in medicine. By 1925, hospitals had transformed from places where people went to die to places they went for treatment and healing. Science and technology took center stage, with Tri-State and others touting their X-ray machines, operating rooms and laboratories to potential patients.

The hospital boom created a need for nurses and support staff, so Tri-State — like other hospitals of the time — opened its own nursing school. Young, unmarried women lived in a dormitory beside the hospital. They spent long hours under strict supervision, training to care for patients. Some of their uniforms, including regulation capes, are displayed in the Talbot Museum.

“For about 20 years, we graduated between 20 and 25 young women who had completed a three-year program that included academic and practical classes,” Roberts says.

Virginia Kelley, mother of former President Bill Clinton, was one of the young women who studied at Tri-State’s nursing school. Kelley also worked as a registered nurse at Tri-State.

Opal Wimberly of Shreveport remembers Kelley as “very professional.”

Wimberly attended Tri-State’s nursing school from 1945 to 1948 before starting a 52-year nursing career with Willis Knighton.

“We kind of looked up to her,” Wimberly says of Kelley. Wimberly grew up in Jonesboro, Louisiana, but even as a child she set her sights on a career.

“All my life, I always wanted to be a nurse. My mother said I used to take mercurochrome, and every time a tree had a spot on it, I would paint it. My mother said she never had any mercurochrome,” she said, laughing.

The nursing program was challenging. After only two semesters of classes, students started doing hands-on care.

“We did morning care for the patients from 7 to 9 (in the morning), then we went to Centenary College for our courses, grabbed something fast to eat on the way back, then we did the PM care at 7 to 9 in the evening,” Wimberly says. “We studied after that, and we have to have lights out at 10:30. I don’t know how we did it all, but we did.”

State nursing board exams were the next challenge. A panel of doctors quizzed Wimberly and her fellow students for hours during the oral exam.

The next day, she agonized over the written exam, fearing that she had bombed it.

When the letter from the state nursing board came, her hands shook. She had trouble opening the envelope, but her fear turned to joy when she saw “RN” behind her name.

“We all screamed, and the ones who didn’t pass were crying,” Wimberly says.

She started on the night shift, working 12 hours a day, six days a week.

“I made $149, and I thought I was rich!” she says.

Tri-State Sanitarium was located at the corner of Greenwood Road and Virginia Avenue and opened in November 1924.

Wimberly’s career spanned the hospital’s transition from a single location with no recovery room or air conditioning to multiple centers offering high-tech, specialized care. Her interest in heart health prompted her to become part of that transition.

In the mid-1960s, Wimberly pitched the idea of a critical care nursing unit to James Elrod, the hospital’s administrator. Elrod had already promised nurses he would hire support staff like nursing aides and orderlies. Wimberly says Elrod backed her idea wholeheartedly.

Shortly after that, Wimberly was one of seven nurses in the United States chosen to participate in a critical care training program sponsored by the American Heart Association. She and the others mingled with medical students and residents.

“We opened the first intensive care unit, a six-bed unit, at Willis Knighton,” she says. “I got a lot of support from doctors for that.”

Wimberly supervised the ICU for several years before turning to teaching future ICU nurses. She collaborated with faculty from LSU School of Medicine in Shreveport and other regional universities to develop nursing specialty courses.

She also worked with state agencies on scrub tech, EKG tech and unit clerk training programs.

Wimberly retired in 2000 as the quality assurance manager for the Willis Knighton nursing department. In 2012, Willis Knighton created the Opal Wimberly Endowed Professorship in Nursing at Northwestern State University to honor her.

Opal Wimberly, now 96, had a 52-year nursing career with Willis Knighton and has witnessed many changes in health care.

Now 96, Wimberly still follows nursing trends and Willis Knighton Health advances. She marveled at the $30 million Willis Knight Heart and Vascular Institute that opened in 2018, which offers visitors the chance to walk through a replica of a heart.

“I’ve seen hearts and I’ve had them to dissect, but I’ve never walked through one before,” says Wimberly.

She and her co-workers never dreamed that Willis Knighton would grow into a regional health care destination. When James Elrod became the administrator in the 1960s, the outlook was grim.

“The hospital wasn’t exactly a flourishing concern,” Jim Roberts said. “We were basically in an undeclared bankruptcy. Mr. Elrod would tell the major department directors, ‘Don’t cash your paycheck until Tuesday so we can get some money into the bank on Monday.’”

Elrod joined the leadership team almost by accident. After earning a master’s degree in public health from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, he was headed home to Texas. He stopped by the hospital to interview for the job, and, at age 27, became one of the youngest hospital administrators in the country.

“Little did Mr. Elrod realize he would spend the next half-century here,” Roberts said. “He was famous for being very hands-on. Even on holidays or Sundays or Saturdays, you could find him wandering the halls of the hospitals. I think that made people feel like he cares. It’s a hospital, but he treated it like his home.”

After stabilizing Willis Knighton Hospital, Elrod led the organization’s growth, focusing on satellite hospitals and clinics as the populations in Shreveport and Bossier City shifted. He also oversaw the development of a provider network that includes 500 physicians.

Willis Knighton utilizes the latest technology in treating patients.

“Because of the size of the Willis Knighton system, we can afford to hire specialists and keep them,” Roberts says. “You can come here, and you can have a caseload you might have in larger city, but you don’t have all the things like a two-hour commute you’d have in a larger city.”

Under Elrod’s leadership, Willis Knighton also introduced urgent care clinics, a health management organization and a retirement community, The Oaks of Louisiana, to offer a continuum of services beyond hospital care.

Elrod earned the distinction of being the longest-serving hospital administrator in the United States. He retired in 2021 after 56 years with the health system but remains on the Willis Knighton Board of Trustees.

In keeping with its local leadership, the board selected Shreveport native Jaf Fielder to lead Willis Knighton after Elrod’s retirement. Fielder joined the staff 30 years ago and has worked in a variety of leadership positions.

He expects technology to play an increasingly important role in how Willis Knighton provides effective, efficient care to patients. The health system has integrated electronic medical records in all its locations and throughout its physician network, so a patient’s entire health history is immediately available.

“Some of our physicians say they feel like they spend more time doctoring the computer than doctoring patients,” he says, laughing.

Willis Knighton is also adding technology infrastructure to support increasingly sophisticated applications.

“You’ve got a lot of artificial intelligence that’s going to be available in the next few years,” Fielder says. “It’s not going to take the place of caregivers, but it’s going to make our doctors more efficient. Something I heard about the other day is ‘ambient listening,’ with the opportunity for speakers to be in a room that will actually pick up on a conversation that a doctor is having with a patient. Instead of a doctor or nurse having to transcribe the record, the system will be intelligent enough to pick up the key points of the conversation and build that into the medical records.”

WK Medical Center North main entrance

WK Medical Center-Bossier

WK Medical Center-Pierremont

WK Medical Center-South

Fielder says Willis Knighton will never sacrifice personal connections or its old-fashioned approach to supporting the community, no matter how much technology the health system deploys.

Willis Knighton is among organizations supporting a new Ronald McDonald House, which will provide free lodging for the parents of seriously ill or injured children. The Ronald McDonald House will be at Willis Knighton South but will serve parents of children at all Shreveport hospitals.

Fielder is also directly involved in community organizations. This year, he’s chairman of the American Heart Association Heart Walk, which is part of Willis Knighton’s 100th anniversary celebration, thanking the community for a century of support.

Fielder says Willis Knighton is dedicated to not only healing the sick but also promoting lifelong wellness though community support.

“We believe in tithing,” Fielder says. “Ten percent of the net income every year is reinvested into the community. We feel obligated to support organizations that support our mission. It’s empowering them to help us help others.”


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