The customary blue roadway signs with a bold white “H” on the way to 1451 El Camino Real represent far more than just another hospital ahead.

They signal a family’s priority to create a community hospital that came to fruition two decades ago, part of the humble beginnings of fostering unmatched medical care for retirees.

That quest continues to build momentum as UF Health The Villages Hospital celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, coming a long way since a Fruitland Park family brought in their 9-year-old who broke his right arm in a treehouse accident.

Heather Long was the ER nurse who treated the boy on July 15, 2002, as the first patient ever at The Villages Regional Hospital. Long’s career took her onward, but now she is back, ascending as UF Health Central Florida’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, overseeing both The Villages and Leesburg hospitals for the mighty University of Florida health system.

“UF Health The Villages Hospital has a rich history and an even brighter future as part of the UF Health family,” Long said. “From advances in service offerings such as stroke and heart and vascular care to groundbreaking research led by some of the brightest minds in medicine, residents of The Villages and surrounding areas can be confident in our expertise and in our ability to meet their health care needs with compassion and excellence.”

It started with a family’s vision. Longtime residents love to speak of the late Harold Schwartz’s walks through the community, engaging in conversation and taking in feedback. But the original founder’s impact arguably is illustrated most profoundly by what he and his son, H. Gary Morse, envisioned for local health care.

Schwartz made a point — captured on a U.S. Highway 27/441 roadside billboard — that he wanted a hospital for residents.

Villages officials held meetings with various hospital groups, looking for one that could help them make Schwartz’s billboard vision a reality. At a couple of those meetings, they took notice of Terry Upton, a hospital administrator in Ocala.

Schwartz and Morse circled back to Upton with a job offer and monumental task to lead — build a hospital from scratch.

“Very few hospital CEOs get to build a hospital from ground zero,” said Upton, who was hired in November 1997. “We got the hospital in less than five years after I came on board.”

Upton had more immediate objectives, too, like bringing in doctors, clinics and imaging facilities while establishing outpatient services, but the long-range hospital plan was key.

“It was a top priority to get that done,” he said.

Morse’s legacy was to initiate an optimum health care system for retirees, one so valuable that its practices and research findings could be shared elsewhere some day. The plan included establishing innovative primary care, aligning with medical partners that explore new boundaries in the world of medicine, and of course, having top-notch hospital care for those who need it. When Morse died in 2014, his family picked up the mantle.

“Our family’s passion for having a hospital devoted to serving our community goes back to granddad Harold and my dad, Gary,” said Mark Morse, The Villages president and CEO. “Having great health care available to our residents was a big part of their vision for our community’s well-being. That desire to bring outstanding health care to the residents of The Villages continues with our family today. We are grateful for all the progress that has been made and optimistic about great things to come. When it comes to The Villages being American’s Healthiest Hometown, as my dad used to say, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!'”

Working with The Villages, UF Health in Gainesville acquired Central Florida Health in December 2019, taking over both The Villages and Leesburg hospitals. Under the University of Florida umbrella, the local hospital instantly became part of a hospital system with nationally rated doctors in a variety of medical specialties and the Southeast’s most comprehensive academic health center.

The startup journey

Wanting a hospital and making it happen were two different things.

There were repeated discussions with then-Leesburg Regional Medical Center officials to build a hospital in The Villages that never materialized, triggering independent actions.

In May 1998, The Villages announced plans for a 25-acre Villages Regional Health System campus for primary care and other medical services. A month later, Leesburg hospital officials filed a certificate of need, a required approval process at the time, to transfer 40 of its hospital beds to The Villages for a satellite facility east of U.S. Highway 27/441.

Two months later, The Villages filed its own certificate of need for a 60-bed, not-for-profit acute care hospital on the existing hospital site to serve approximately 15,000.

Residents banded together to convince state officials their community needed a hospital. Led by The Villages Homeowners Association and Community Improvement Council, residents generated 1,500 letters of support that were hand-delivered to the state capital, according to Sandy Mott, a VHA past-president.

State officials approved The Villages’ request and denied Leesburg officials’ request, prompting an appeal from LRMC. The appeal halted progress on The Villages’ hospital plans.

The two entities sat down at the negotiating table one more time, leading to a breakthrough announcement on July 1, 1999 — The Villages agreed to give its state approval for a 60-bed hospital to LRMC if it would build the hospital on the Avenida Central site.

Mott said the VHA once again joined in, hosting a golf tournament, a dinner and a Disney cruise as fundraisers for “Our Hospital Project” to provide furnishings for the chapel and main lobby area of The Villages Regional Hospital.

Upton said the hospital was master-planned to ultimately become a 360-bed hospital. However, Florida’s certificate of need to approve new or expanding hospitals was a lengthy process that could take years to complete.

It proved a hindrance once again to the rapidly-growing The Villages as the population doubled to roughly 30,000, stretching the capabilities of the startup 60-bed hospital. The hospital’s census or occupancy rate often maxed out, making it difficult to find new inpatients a bed, causing longer emergency room wait times and forcing the hospital to go on diversion during peak demand, sending non-urgent ambulance traffic elsewhere.

In 2003, the Florida Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush approved a new law that allowed communities facing a 60% or higher growth rate over a 10-year period to skip the certificate of need process for hospital expansions. However, both hospital systems in Ocala challenged the new law, which prevented The Villages hospital from immediately expanding.

Eventually, the hospital did get approval to expand to 198 beds in 2007 and to 223 in 2010, and is currently a 307-bed facility. Florida also no longer has a certificate of need process.

Hospital services continued to expand and improve over the years:

• A webcam was installed in 2006 so residents could watch the construction progress on a new surgical intensive care unit.

• One of the world’s first Philips Ambient Experience Catheter Labs opened in 2008 and a second was added two years later.

• The first hip replacement surgery was performed in 2010.

• The hospital became a certified primary care stroke center in 2012.

• Since 2015, the robotic da Vinci Xi surgical system has been used in more than 1,000 surgeries, allowing for smaller incisions, less pain and quicker healing time.

Seeing the hospital’s progress after 20 years puts a smile on the face of its first CEO, who was present for the early years.

“I still consider it my baby,” the 73-year-old Upton said. “I still have a great sense of pride and accomplishment in what it’s become.”

Turning orange and blue

The December 2019 acquisition by UF Health brought in much more than the traditional orange and blue color schemes of the University of Florida. It was an instant infusion of medical expertise from a pipeline that includes six health colleges, nine research institutes and centers, and specialists who handle more than 165,000 hospital admissions.

“What started as a small community hospital in 2002 has now evolved into a comprehensive medical center, offering advanced health care services and leading-edge research as part of UF Health,” said Dr. David R. Nelson, senior vice president for UF health affairs and UF Health president. “The Villages Hospital remains committed to meeting the health care needs of residents of The Villages — America’s Healthiest Hometown — and surrounding communities, for the next 20 years and beyond.”

Soon after the acquisition, residents saw the connections at work when UF Health partnered with The Villages Health to open one of the first large-scale drive-through COVID-19 testing sites in Florida at The Villages Polo Club as the pandemic was just beginning.

Medical students from Gainesville performed testing for residents who drove up via golf cart, while the research arm of the project conducted testing to see if individuals without symptoms might be carrying the virus.

The relationship between residents and those from the Gainesville campus continues here in The Villages. Undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and medical residents all interact with local residents volunteering as clinical trial participants, according to Carla Vandeweerd, director of UF Health Precision Health Research Center.

“I think it’s hugely beneficial,” Vandeweerd said of enabling future health professionals to interact with the residents. “It’s real-world experience for them.”

Being around Villages residents helps dispel notions that everyone who is aging is on the decline. Instead, they get to see residents living their lives in a period of vitality, which is different than other community models those medical residents and students may experience elsewhere, she said.

The UF Health research connection is growing thanks to Villagers’ willingness to serve and help.

“Their motive is to benefit other adults,” Vandeweerd said.

What started as $500,000 in local research funding projects just 18 months ago will balloon to $9.5 million in the near future, she said.

Research covers the gamut, going beyond finding the next wonder drug. One trial looks at cognitive function, with participants wearing a sleep-monitoring device; another eyes technology, with a toilet seat that can record a patient’s vital signs; and a third puts a person in a self-driving vehicle so researchers can measure their perceptions as if they were behind the wheel.

Vandeweerd praises The Villages for wanting to make a difference in the lives of seniors.

“You really have to have a community that wants to advance science for that to occur,” she said.

UF Health is planning to launch a three-year medical residency program for 15 doctors at the hospital, starting in July 2024, with another 15 starting in the following year. It will provide a pipeline of those trained in the latest innovations to provide care for local patients.

The orange and blue is highly visible on a helipad next to the hospital. That is where the ShandsCair2 helicopter is stationed since December, enabling its flight crew to respond to those critically injured or ill and get them to specialized care. As part of UF Health’s critical care transport system, the flight crew transports multi-trauma, neurosurgical, surgical and medical emergencies.

Inside the hospital, work is beginning on a new Heart and Vascular unit, which will bring all of the hospital’s cardiovascular services together on one floor.

Today, the 307-bed hospital employs more than 1,000. In the hospital’s 2021-22 fiscal year that ended June 30, the staff cared for 11,825 inpatients and 16,189 outpatients, and performed 5,065 surgeries. Also in that one-year period, 28,954 patients came through the emergency department doors at the hospital.

The UF Health Freestanding ER at Brownwood, which opened in January 2020 to serve residents who live in the southern portion of The Villages and Sumter County, treated another 18,178 patients during that fiscal year.

Village Rio Grande resident Dorene Michel was hospitalized for five days in May. She was so impressed with her care from nurses like Lynda Carew and Kristy Nienberg that she reached out to hospital administrators to let them know about the quality of care she received.

“The nurses were outstanding, the doctors were great,” Michel told the Daily Sun.

Michel, who no longer drives a car, said having a golf cart-accessible hospital is essential.

“It’s very important,” she said. “I no longer drive, but I can go to the hospital and my appointments by golf cart.”

UF Health The Villages recently obtained a “B” rating from the Leapfrog Group, which rates hospitals on 28 criteria that gauge hospital safety and care for patients like Michel. Long, who became UF Health Central Florida’s COO in June 2021, immediately went to work on improving the hospital’s rating by focusing on a deeper leadership team that is laser-focused on quality care for its patients and attention to its staff.

“I would like to thank our employees, medical staff and volunteers for their dedicated service to our patients and their families, and also express my sincere gratitude to the communities we serve for trusting us with their care,” Long said.

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