When Pender Memorial Hospital opened its doors in 1951, the medical team consisted of 25 professionals. Now, Novant Health Pender Medical Center includes nearly 200 team members at the hospital and another 66 on the Novant Health Home Care team.

While there have been countless changes in the 72-year history, one thing has remained the same: the mission to provide excellent health care close to home, for and by members of the community. Novant Health is proud to be part of this mission.

A transfer agreement with Novant Health creates a path forward for growth opportunities and expanded care in Burgaw and its surrounding communities, with $50 million in investments from Novant Health during the next 10 years. Major improvements include further developing the medical center into a community general hospital and improving access to primary and specialty health care in Pender County.

Ruth Glaser smiles at the camera.
Ruth Glaser

The heart of Pender Medical Center is the care team. President and chief operating officer Ruth Glaser emphasized that her team does not compromise on providing patients with remarkable experiences and compassionate care.

“I’m so proud to be part of the legacy we have created here,” she said. “When you come here for care, you are going to get it from team members who are not only highly skilled, but also treat you the way they want their own family to be treated.”

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Empathy with every breath

Candy Gilbert, a respiratory therapist at Pender Medical Center, is one of these team members. A lifelong resident of Burgaw, she was born at the hospital in 1971. Eighteen years later, shortly after she graduated from high school, she started her career as a respiratory therapist.

After taking a short break in the early ’90s to raise her two children, Matthew and Kenzie, she returned to the hospital in 1994. In April 2024, she’ll celebrate 30 years of continuous service. Over the years, she has completed numerous training and credentialing courses, including registry with the National Respiratory Care Board, the standard of excellence in her field.

Gilbert loves caring for her patients and seeing them through to recovery. As a respiratory therapist, she helps patients breathe using an array of assessments and tools. She works with patients who have conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and emphysema, as well as patients with illnesses and injuries who need ventilators to breathe.

Candy Gilbert
Candy Gilbert

“When we receive patients who have come in with a cardiac arrest, and we revive them, that is a wonderful feeling of knowing that I've just saved a life,” Gilbert said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gilbert played a hands-on role in managing devices that delivered critical oxygen therapy to patients.

It’s a high-stress job, but from Gilbert’s peaceful and calm demeanor, you’d never know it. On a trip to the grocery store, she’s bound to run into at least a few people whose lives she has impacted. And when they ask if she’s planning to retire, she just smiles and laughs.

“I’ve got many more years to come,” she said. “I guess I was just meant to be a respiratory therapist.”

What keeps Gilbert coming back to work each day is the level of compassion the team members show for every patient, and for each other, too. She describes the team as “like a family.”

“When I walk through the doors, there are so many people who work here who are so caring,” she said. “It makes me want to care for the patients even more. Because everybody cares here.”

Compassion for every patient

Another caring team member is Glennis Hansley, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) in the skilled nursing unit at Pender Medical Center for 22 years. The skilled nursing unit, on the second floor of the hospital, provides long-term care for patients who need help with daily activities due to physical impairment or illness.

Hansley works as a resource coordinator for nurses, supporting the nursing team and providing connections with the people and things they need. At any given moment, she may be working on anything from coordinating the nursing team’s schedules to communicating important information to patients’ family members.

Sometimes, after a patient is discharged, families ask for help obtaining outside resources.

Glennis Hansley
Glennis Hansley

“That's what I take pride in,” Hansley said. “To be able to provide the care to people who may otherwise not be able to get it. If we weren't here, they would have to go a long way for health care.”

And for many people in rural Burgaw, traveling a long distance for care is simply not an option because it’s too difficult or too expensive.

Hansley recalls an elderly patient whose health started to decline. She needed 24/7 care, but didn’t want to leave her friends, family and life in Burgaw. Because of Pender Medical Center’s skilled nursing unit and relationship with Lower Cape Fear LifeCare for end-of-life care, she received the support she needed without leaving her hometown and her loved ones.

“That was very reassuring for this resident’s family,” Hansley explained. “She was able to remain at our facility where she was familiar with our staff and her family could visit her.”

She said the skilled nursing team treats all patients with dignity. “This is their home,” she said. “And we treat this like their home.”

Care close to home, and even at home

In addition to skilled nursing, surgical, emergency and rehabilitation services at the hospital, Novant Health Pender Medical Center offers a Home Care program. This means that patients who need rehabilitative, nursing, medical social work, and/or home health aide services after being discharged from the hospital can receive care in their own home.

Physical therapist Sean Gilbert (no relation to Candy Gilbert) has worked in Pender Medical Center’s Home Care program for two years. He said patients are often relieved and surprised to learn that they can receive services at home instead of going to a rehabilitation facility.

Sean Gilbert
Sean Gilbert

“People appreciate the fact that we're able to go to their home to see them,” Gilbert said.

Before a patient is discharged from the hospital, the care team develops a personalized care plan. While some patients who need intensive rehabilitative services will stay on-site to receive physical therapy as often as five or six days a week, Gilbert explained, others can safely live at home with the help of Home Care.

As a physical therapist and movement expert, Gilbert ensures that patients can live and move safely in their homes, and correctly operate any new equipment. He helps family members and caregivers understand how to help keep the patient safe at home, too.

“Whether you're a younger person who may have a pickleball injury or an older person who just got home from the hospital for having pneumonia, it's all in the scope of making sure you’re safe when you get home,” he said.

Gilbert, originally from New Jersey, travels across Pender and Duplin counties to visit patients in their homes and has worked with adults aged in their 20s through their 90s. He may visit as many as six homes a day.

What Gilbert finds really gratifying, he said, is witnessing how much a patient’s health can improve with the combination of compassion, care and expertise. One patient he worked with in Home Care this year went from being in a wheelchair and requiring assistance to get out of bed to walking with a cane in just about eight months.

“That was really rewarding to see her improve that much,” he said.

Pender Medical Center with pink azaleas blooming in the foreground.

3 key ways Novant Health has already invested in Pender Medical Center

In 1999, Pender Medical Center became part of the New Hanover Regional Medical Center network, uniting the two hospitals in improving healthcare services in the region. This relationship only grew stronger when both hospitals became part of Novant Health in 2021, said Ruth Glaser, president and chief operating officer of Pender Medical Center.

“Novant Health has just stepped it up even more," Glaser said. "They understand you should get care close to home."

As the residents of Burgaw look ahead, here are three ways Novant Health has proudly invested in the community since 2021.

1. Providing financial assistance for patients

As a not-for-profit health system, Novant Health is committed to providing remarkable care to every patient, regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. Novant Health’s generous financial assistance policy allows eligible patients who are uninsured and earn up to 300% of the federal poverty level to receive no-cost medical care. In 2023, that’s a $90,000 annual income for a family of four. At Pender Medical Center in 2021 and 2022, more than 2,500 patients benefitted from this financial assistance policy. This represents a 400% increase in free care over years 2020 and 2019.

2. Raising team member wages – twice

Team members play an essential role in creating a healthier future for Novant Health patients and bringing remarkable experiences to life. The ability to provide a living wage to all team members is a top priority for Novant Health, and the health system has increased its team members’ minimum wage twice since Pender Medical Center became part of its network. In 2021, Novant Health raised its minimum wage from $12.50 to $15 an hour; in 2023, it raised the minimum hourly wage again to $17.

3. Spearheading a rural residency track

Everyone deserves access to high-quality health care regardless of where they live. To prepare for future community growth in Burgaw, Novant Health is rolling out a new rural family medicine track at Pender Medical Center and its neighbor Black River Health Services during summer 2025. It’s part of Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s family medicine and UNC School of Medicine’s residency program that leverages skills, scale and resources to train future family physicians with a passion for rural medicine.

“It’s going to change the whole landscape of the organization, to have residents in the halls here and to be growing physicians right here, so that they can then practice here in this community,” Glaser said. “It's a huge opportunity for Pender County.”