Brain and spine surgery services in southeastern North Carolina take a major leap forward in January when the Novant Health Neurosciences Institute - New Hanover opens in Wilmington.

In effect, it’s a new hospital within a hospital. The institute will provide the latest in stroke, brain, spine and neurological care for patients from seven counties — New Hanover, Bladen, Brunswick, Carteret, Onslow, Pender and Sampson. It's an outgrowth of a partnership forged in 2021 between Winston Salem-based Novant Health and New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

"We're excited to expand access to a wide range of neurological care in our community," said Laurie Whalin, chief operating officer of Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

Access to specially trained doctors, advanced technology and an array of leading-edge services can have a life-changing impact for patients facing a stroke, brain tumor, spine injury, Alzheimer's diagnosis, epilepsy or movement disorder such as Parkinson's disease, said Dr. James McKinney, medical director of the Novant Health Neurosciences Institute in the Coastal region.

Here are 5 things to know about the new five-story, 108,000-square-foot facility.

neuro neurology MS brain health multiple sclerosis

Think you might need a neuro specialist? Start with your primary care physician.

Learn more

1. What will patients find there?

The institute will house a comprehensive stroke center, three patient care floors, four dedicated operating rooms, intensive care and step-down units, as well as two interventional suites.

“The rooms are really, really first class — and I think it’s going to be the most beautiful space in the hospital,” McKinney said. “The patient rooms and procedural spaces are all state of the art.”

2. What new technology will be available?

A portable CT scanner will allow neuroradiologists to get needed images without moving a critically ill patient to another space. A neurological catheterization lab consists of two biplane suites equipped with rotating cameras that can re-create 3D views of blood vessels leading to the brain and within it. These images help doctors treat strokes caused by blocked arteries in the head and neck, brain tumors, arteriovenous malformation and cerebral aneurysm, among other things.

"We've been at the forefront of aneurysm treatment, which continues to advance on a rapid basis," McKinney said.

The institute will also bring other novel technologies to the region, including laser interstitial thermal therapy (LITT), which is a minimally invasive treatment option for metastatic brain cancer.

For years, New Hanover Regional Medical Center has provided advanced spine care, including minimally invasive procedures. The new Neurosciences Institute will allow patients to continue to receive the best in neurosurgical and orthopedic spine care.

Spinal surgeries at the institute include:

  • Replacement of deteriorated discs.
  • Spinal stenosis.
  • Correction of scoliosis.
The institute will also help support the existing trauma program through cross collaboration with emergency medicine physicians, trauma surgeons, neurologists and neurosurgeons.

Dr. James McKinney and acute care nurse practitioner Whitney Smith.

3. Which patients will come to Wilmington for care?

"The goal is to have patients who need that higher level of care brought to us, with a majority of patients being able to stay in their own community, in their own county hospitals and taken care of by their doctors," McKinney said. "In addition to building the Neurosciences Institute and dedicating the necessary resources to support it, Novant Health has been investing in local community hospitals to help them access care by leveraging new technologies, including artificial intelligence."

Cloud-based software allows doctors to look at CT scans or angiograms done elsewhere and make real-time decisions about the best place for patients to receive treatment. Privacy-protected messaging allows for direct communication with doctors at other hospitals so patients can receive timely, effective and safe treatment.

4. What about staffing — have you hired more doctors and nurses?

"That's the most important question — our people make all the difference," McKinney said.

The institute is staffed by a team of neurohospitalists, neurointerventionalists, neurosurgeons and specially trained nurses and support staff. Nurses are in short supply nationwide, but Novant Health has wooed many to the institute with signing bonuses and a residency program that supports those just starting out. Many of the new hires say the opportunity to work in a sparkling, state-of-the-art facility was a big draw. "It has enhanced our ability to recruit," McKinney said.

With the hiring wave, one of our experts— a neurologist, neuro-nurse practitioner or neuro PA — is on duty 24/7 to respond to emergencies quickly, he emphasized.

5. What's coming in the future?

"The new space and our facilities will not only help us take care of patients but also help us recruit the best talent we can find to provide those therapies," he said. "That's big."

Patients with Parkinson's and tremors who need "brain pacemakers" should be able to get those implants at the institute within three to five years. Ditto for surgical treatment of epilepsy and other seizure disorders. New Hanover is already a level 3 epilepsy center, equipped to provide the highest level of medical care for patients with complex epilepsy.

"I just want our community to know that we're here for them. If someone has a neurologic illness or disease, we want them to be able to receive treatment for that illness close to home in southeast North Carolina," McKinney said.

Know the warning signs of stroke

With a subspecialty in stroke care, Dr. James McKinney wants everyone to know the signs of stroke because every minute counts when one occurs. Fast treatment can lessen the brain damage a stroke can leave behind.

In the U.S., more than 795,000 people have a stroke each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stroke risk increases with age, but strokes can – and do – occur at any age.

Symptoms of stroke can be remembered by using the acronym BE FAST:

  • Balance: Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or lack of coordination.
  • Eyesight: Double vision, blurry vision or loss of vision in one or both eyes.
  • Face: Facial drooping, typically on one side or the other.
  • Arms: Sudden numbness or weakness in the arm, face or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Speech: Slurred speech, inability to speak or difficulty understanding speech.
  • Time: Time is critical if experiencing these symptoms. Seek help immediately.
  • "If you have any of those that are sudden onset, it's time to call 911," McKinney said.