SRMC Foundation’s 7th annual gala set for next month

Chris Berendt Staff Writer

September 20, 2013

The annual Parternship for Life Gala is on tap for next month and, where equipment and facility renovations have been at the core cause of the major fundraising event in years past, this year’s will benefit a very human investment into the future of healthcare in Sampson County.

The 7th annual gala, sponsored by the Sampson Regional Medical Center Foundation, will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, at Prestage Hall, Sampson Agri-Exposition Center. The theme for the night will be “Casino Night in Atlantis,” with proceeds used to establish a Medical Education Fund to advance the hospital as a training facility for physicians and medical students.

Amber Cava, executive director of the Sampson Regional Medical Center Foundation, said the gala has contributed for years to improving local healthcare — this year will continue that trend, with an investment into the future.

“The gala started as a major fundraising event for the foundation to support projects in the hospital,” said Cava. “The foundation board votes every year to designate the funds from the gala to support a specific cause for the hospital, whether it be medical equipment or an expansion or renovation of a particular area in the hospital. In designating these funds, they look for an opportunity to find a project that really does benefit the community because we’re asking for the community’s support.”

Typically, through that community support and private donations, enough funds are raised through the gala to fully implement those projects. Each event has seen a net revenue between $27,000-34,000, utilized for various improvements within the hospital through equipment purchases and facility upgrades to help ensure SRMC keeps moving forward.

A different theme is established each year and last year’s theme, a Vegas casino-themed night, “was a really big hit,” Cava said. It is non-gambling, with no money actually exchanging hands, but many opted for the casino style games over dancing, a fixture at the gala.

“People were so intrigued by the games and were enjoying that so much, we thought we would bring it back,” she said. “They were really excited we were doing that again this year.”

The gala also provides a silent auction, live auction and raffle prizes, which benefit greatly from generous community and individual donations every year, Cava said. Floral centerpieces are donated and dedicated volunteers pitch in to help prep the area for a great night.

Over the years, proceeds from the gala have benefited significant Emergency Room improvements and equipment purchases, the relocation and complete renovation of the Pediatric Unit and a full front lobby overhaul, including new furnishings and paint to make the hospital’s entrance more inviting. Other gala events have seen the purchase of digital mammography equipment, as well as subsequent upgrades allowing for 3D breast imaging.

“Any time we can do anything that preserves services in the county, brings high-tech, state-of-the-art equipment or enhances the space we’re offering in our facility, it helps keep services close to home patients in our community who don’t want to drive somewhere else to receive those same services they can receive here,” said Cava.

A departure this year, the cause for the event is not for a particular piece of equipment or a tangible project — rather it is to establish seed money for a Medical Education Fund that will turn SRMC into a training ground for young medical students, which Cava conceded is a different kind of endeavor chosen by the Foundation board, but one with the community’s interests still very much at heart.

She credited the Foundation board for its vision.

“I think this is something that is very important not only for the hospital, but for the community,” said Cava. “It is so critical to the viability of our healthcare in our community. Though it is different for the Foundation Board, they were really on board with it and really excited to be able to support this project.”

Dr. Shawn Howerton, chief medical officer for Sampson Regional Medical Center, agreed.

“I think it’s exceptional,” said Howerton, who runs a family practice, Howerton Family Medicine in Roseboro, with his wife, Dr. Amy Howerton. “It really is an investment into our community.”

The cause

Physician recruitment is an incredible challenge for rural hospitals, one that is imperative to SRMC continuing to be a quality healthcare provider, hospital officials said.

“With rural healthcare in general, it is a challenge to recruit physicians,” Howerton said. “As we move more and more into the physician shortage, it’s even more of a challenge.”

“Making Sampson County a place where physicians want to come and establish their practice and move their families to, is an effort on behalf of our entire community,” Cava added. “It’s really important that we do get those physicians and specialists here so people can receive that care close to home when they get sick or need that treatment.”

Natural attrition of medical staff, many of whom are reaching retirement age, makes recruiting and retaining good physicians that much more vital. Longtime local physicians want to know their patients will be cared for, and those patients want the same type of care they have always received.

“We do have an aging medical staff. (The Medical Fund) is really an investment in the future of our community and the hospital,” said Howerton. “If you’re exposed to a hospital and a community on the earlier side of your career, you tend to take ownership of that community and accept jobs in that community.”

That is not a process that happens overnight, where one physician leaves and another automatically takes his or her place. It is one that can take years, so the hospital constantly studies needs in the community, be it pediatrics, orthopaedics, dermatology — Cava pointed to Dr. John Surratt’s recent retirement as a prime example — or anywhere else, where there is a void.

As some physicians age, the hospital needs to be ready to fill a crucial need and some big shoes.

“It’s really important to our medical staff that there are going to be other highly-trained qualified physicians in place who are going to take care of their patients who they have long cared for,” said Cava. “There are a number of services we’re always recruiting for, but the goal would be that we bring students in and, as they spend time training for a year or two in our community, they establish themselves in our community.”

That comes with its own set of challenges.

“There are a lot of things we can offer that an urban facility can’t, but it does have it’s challenges for us too,” said Cava.

It is hoped that teaming up with Campbell University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine, whose medical students already have a focus toward rural healthcare, will make that process easier. The ultimate hope is that young physicians would make a personal investment in the community, like so many others working on the hospital campus and throughout the county have done. Howerton is among them who has made Sampson his home.

“It really is a community need and a community effort,” said Howerton. “I’m a transplant on my ninth year (in Sampson) now. You have to love the community and want to be a part of it. You want to be able to get physicians here, but you also want to make sure it’s the right fit. If they’re transplanting here and they’re miserable, that’s not helping anyone. Being a part of the community is just an expectation for us.”

That way, people know who their doctor is and, when the workday is complete, that physician is not rushing out of the county, where his or her tax dollars and vested interests follow. It is not long before that turns into turnover, and another recruitment process anyway, Howerton said.

“Our medical staff are very united on moving forward with Medical Education,” he said. “It’s one of the most unifying things I’ve seen in my time here, where the medical staff are all behind this.”

Campbell students would start coming in 2015 and hospital officials are hoping to get into offering residencies shortly thereafter. It is hoped all that will translate into qualified physicians choosing Sampson County as their home. Recruiting physicians to the hospital comes at a cost, hospital officials said, and the Medical Fund is a good investment in getting in on the ground floor.

“When we get that announcement (of a new physician choosing SRMC), that return is huge for us and our community,” said Cava. “Using this as a strategy for physician recruitment as well, it is definitely a worthwhile investment.”

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at