by Ann Brooke Raynal
photographs by Jillian Clark
Despite years of passionate advocacy and numerous letters to the newspaper, when John T. Rex died in 1839, there was no hospital in Raleigh. Wealthy people could afford the journey to Charleston or Petersburg, but for the poor, severe injury or disease often amounted to a death sentence.
In his will, after first providing for the emancipation of his slaves and their transport back to Africa, Rex, a tanner and Pennsylvania native, left the remainder of his estate for the establishment of a hospital for the needy and indigent. The trustees of that estate read like a Who’s Who of Raleigh history: Duncan Cameron and George Mordecai served as executors of Rex’s will, and William Peace acted as the first trustee of the newly formed Rex Hospital Corporation. But before the hospital could be built, the Civil War intervened. The Corporation’s investments in Confederate dollars became worthless, and more than 50 years passed before trustees could buy the fledgling St. John’s hospital on Salisbury Street.
Fifty years after that – in 1936, when a new facility was built on St. Mary’s Street – the hospital’s heart and soul was born with the creation of the Rex Guild. Charged with creating “a feeling of goodwill towards the hospital,” the Guild raised $50,000 that first year to furnish the new building. By 1940, hospital trustees had established a Guild board to organize and provide leadership for more than 600 civic-minded women who managed everything from fresh flowers to bedpans.
Today, the Guild is still the heartbeat of the 665-bed hospital, which is now located off Lake Boone Trail. Its 30 board members raise money for medical devices, financial assistance for indigent patients, pastoral and palliative care, and countless projects designed to improve the lives patients, families, and hospital employees. More than 1,400 volunteers bring a personal touch.
Caring and curing
“The doctors and nurses and staff make Rex the first-rate hospital it is,” says Bit Hardy, a past president and Guild board member of 18 years. “The Guild is the angel on the shoulders of Rex.”
Hardy was born at “Old Rex” on St. Mary’s street. Her father, Dr. Verne Caviness, worked at Rex and was Wake County’s first cardiologist. Hardy’s longtime friend and fellow Guild board member Sandy Page, also a past Guild president, was also born at Rex. “What I like about the Guild is that nothing is done for publicity or personal glory. And you don’t have to ask for money!”
That’s because the Guild supports its extensive philanthropy through one of its own projects. The hospital’s Korner Gift Shop is operated exclusively by Guild volunteers. The store carries flowers, magazines, and candy, gifts, baby clothes, and books. It feels more like a North Hills boutique than a convenience store. Every year the gift shop chairs (Miller Stanley and Laura Isley are this year’s co-chairs) go to market in Atlanta, and their good taste is apparent. Beyond raising funds, the store serves a vital function for patients and hospital staff, some of whom stop in every day for candy and treats for their floor. “The gift shop is a happy, beautiful, vibrant place,” says director of volunteer services Melinda Scott. “It is a true respite for families.”
Creating a sanctuary for patients and their families is a top priority of the group. “I have served on other boards where fundraising and the allocation of those funds were our primary responsibility,” says former board president Mary Rendleman. “Those functions are important, but the Guild requires a more personal interaction…we have contact with patients and their families as well as employees on a regular basis in many different areas of the hospital.”
Quality of Life
The beautiful courtyard garden created, financed, and tended by the Guild was named in honor of Maude Grimes, a longtime volunteer and an avid gardener. When current Rex was built, she insisted the magnolia that shaded the lot on St. Mary’s street be moved to the Lake Boone location. But the price tag was prohibitive. So the Guild raised the money, and the tree made the journey. The Maude Grimes Garden is lovely in the fall, but absolutely stunning spring through summer as tulips, azaleas and hydrangeas take their showy turns. “It’s a place of comfort and serenity for all our patients,” says Hardy.
“And not just for patients, but for staff as well,” Page adds. “There’s always someone outside, enjoying the garden.”
The chapel was also erected by the Guild with the “whole patient” in mind. Its altar was taken from the St. Mary’s location. There have been a couple of weddings in the tiny space, and fresh flowers are provided by the Guild each week.
The Guild has also always played a role in bringing pastoral care to Rex. The Pallative Care Program, initiated in 2004, was designed to allow teams of doctors, nurses, social workers, and chaplains help patients and families make decisions about quality of life. The Guild also funds the Hospital Chaplain interns.
The Cancer Center, another ongoing project, provides medical supplies as well as hand-made caps, blankets and pillows to patients. A Pharmacy Fund helps indigent patients receive chemotherapy treatment and purchase medications.
The latest Guild project, the purchase of a state-of-the-art 3-D Breast imaging machine that can detect more cancers with fewer false positives, is already saving lives.
Supporting the Staff
Rex became the first hospital in the Southeast to offer onsite daycare when the Guild established a daycare center in 1969, making it the first business in the state to do so. Because they worked so closely with nurses, Guild members knew they would be happier and more fulfilled at work if their children could be cared for close by.
The Guild makes sure that the hospital’s surroundings lift employees’ spirits, too. During the holiday season, The Guild covers the entire building in cheerful red poinsettias and hosts a Holiday Tea buffet lunch for all hospital employees. Over the years, the celebration has become larger and more elaborate. “We always want people to feel appreciated,” says Hardy. “The doctors who started Rex wanted it to feel like a family. And we have tried to keep that family feeling going.”
Another cherished holiday tradition occurs on Christmas Eve, when the Guild delivers a teddy bear to every patient spending Christmas in the Hospital. “No one wants to be in the hospital at Christmas, but the bears show them someone has been thinking about them,” she says. “I love to think of all the children waking up on Christmas morning cradling their teddy bears. They will know that someone loves and cares for them.”