Robert Carraway Remembers
Robert Carraway Remembers | Charles N. Carraway, Robert P. Carraway, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Norwood Hospital, Carraway Methodist, Ben Carraway, Lifesaver

(Above Left): Robert P. Carraway, MD,; (Above): Carraway Hospital founder C.N. Carraway, MD and grandson Robert Carraway on the steps of Carraway Hospital, 1950.
After one hundred years of service, the Birmingham hospital founded by Charles Carraway closed in October. It held the unique legacy of having three generations of the same family at the helm for all but the last three years of its existence.

"The hospital started for my granddad as a foundation of care from a spiritual standpoint, and my dad and I inherited the same values," said Robert P. Carraway, MD, grandson of the founder and the third Carraway to serve as CEO and chair of the hospital. "Granddad was a dedicated surgeon. He had an incredible servant's heart toward the needy."

In the early 1900's, Charles N. Carraway (C.N.) realized the need for a hospital while treating miners in Pratt City. So in 1908, he built a 16-bed infirmary adjacent to his house.

Nine years later, he moved the hospital to its current Norwood location in north Birmingham. At that time, Norwood was a prominent neighborhood of fine houses right outside the mines of Pratt City. "He called it 'The Northern Front'," Carraway said.

C.N., an innovative thinker, financed his hospital by convincing area businesses to pay for healthcare with a monthly stipend of $1 per employee or $1.25 per family. Not surprisingly, about 20 years later, C.N. played a primary role in founding Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama. He also started a nursing school and the state's first surgical training program.

C.N.'s grandson, Robert Carraway, has a photo on his wall showing himself when he was four years old holding his granddad's hand on the steps of Norwood Hospital. But Carraway's childhood memories center more on playing on his grandfather's farm than the hospital. "I remember my mom being very mad once when she picked up me and my two friends at my granddad's farm. Granddad had let us play and chase the pigs. We were dirty and we smelled," Carraway said.

Though Carraway didn't spend much of his childhood within the hospital, he does recall his dad's stories about C.N. They've helped shape the Carraway tradition of caring deeply for their employees. "One time, the hospital didn't have enough money to pay the employees," Carraway said. "So my granddad had the board of directors put money in a hat that he passed around the table to keep the employees paid."

When C.N. started the school of nursing at Norwood in 1917, his caring, protective demeanor toward the young students shaped him as a father figure in their minds. "Dad said that they would ask granddad's permission to go out on dates," Carraway said.

In the 1940's, C.N. donated Norwood Hospital to the Methodist church, and it became Carraway Methodist, with C.N. remaining the CEO and chair. After C.N. suffered a stroke in 1957, the board elected his son, Ben Carraway, MD, to take over the reins.

Dr. Ben, as he was called, started a massive building campaign that expanded the hospital from 256 to 617 beds. "My granddad had been big into medicine and farming, and I think my dad was equally entrenched in surgery and building," Carraway said. "When I was growing up, there was always a building program named 'Carraway' going on."

Dr. Ben didn't talk about work at home, even after taking over as CEO. "I don't remember a bunch of problems at the dinner table. Dinner was about family," Carraway said. "I'm sure there were lots of problems my dad had to deal with, but he didn't bring them home."

Carraway's memories of his dad as a doctor revolve more around his dedication to patients and the hospital. "He didn't take appointments back then, and he'd stay until the last patient was seen for the day. Sometimes, patients would wait eight hours to see him," Carraway said.

"I grew up with memories of a certain work ethic," he said. "Medicine wasn't an eight-to-five job. If you're called in the middle of night, you go and you don't murmur about it; you don't complain about it. You're expected to take care of what's before you." Carraway's granddad worked until he was 81, and his dad performed his last operation at 83 years old.

That dedication sometimes interfered with Carraway's boyhood plans. "I wound up over at the hospital on several occasions when I was supposed to be going over to a friend's house," he said with a laugh. "Dad would forget he was taking me on errands, and we'd wind up at the hospital, because he was so used to going there."

At those times, Carraway would usually wait in his dad's office or in the car. But one day, he recalls, he did not sit patiently. "I forget how young I was, but I wandered into an operating suite while an operation was in progress. I guess I was lost. And I remember my dad yelling at me to get out of that sterile room quick. I learned real early that the operating room was a special place."

Despite being ousted as a child from the operating room, Carraway went on to become a surgeon himself. "Maybe I like challenges," he said, laughing. "Or maybe I don't know any better."

The legacy of medicine in the Carraway family becomes more understandable as Carraway cites a list of uncles and cousins covering most medical specialties, including ob/gyn, thoracic vascular surgery, pediatrics, and internal medicine. All of them worked at Carraway when he was a child, except one. "Every time we had a family reunion, it was like a medical meeting," Carraway said. "Medicine was all I knew, growing up."

Carraway took his first job at the hospital when he was 17. "My dad started me in the morgue with the pathologist looking at tissue," he said. "He figured if I could withstand that, I could withstand med school and residency."

Other summers were spent as an orderly in the emergency room and a scrub nurse in the OR.

"The ER exposed me to what I was fixing to get into. I saw people getting helped that needed help, and I found that that was a real ministry to make a career out of," Carraway said.

By the time he served as a scrub nurse, he knew he was going to med school, and his interest peaked. "I thought it was fascinating how surgeons could go into someone's abdomen, know what they were doing, and get out safely, because at that point, it all looked bloody to me," he said.

After serving part of his residency and his entire career at the hospital, Carraway was elected to take over as CEO and chair in 1993 when his dad had a stroke. "I think for all three of us, our sole desire was delivering surgical care rather than the administrative part. The administration was more of a family responsibility."

He continued the values set by his grandfather of putting people first. "When you're sick, you want the administration to be as compassionate as the nurses, the caregivers, and the doctors. So administration is not just about the bottom line dollar," Carraway said.

During Carraway's tenure, the hospital started five programs: the Lifesaver emergency helicopter service, a trauma center, a hyperbaric oxygen therapy department, a wound care center, and the laser center. "But I had the taste for building too, because a lot of the campus that's present now, I was a part of," he said.

Lifesaver, the first helicopter service in Alabama, came about because Carraway "moonlighted in emergency rooms in my residency. I found a lot of patients in 1978 couldn't make it to Birmingham's higher-level hospitals," he said. So by 1981, he had Lifesaver in place along with the trauma center. The helicopter program carried 30,000 patients as part of Carraway hospital, and was one of only 5 percent of emergency flight programs in the nation that placed physicians on every flight.

"Then the Balanced Budget Act and other financial woes came to the health system, and you know the rest," Carraway said. In 2005, the hospital finally left Carraway hands after 97 years. It was sold the following year at a bankruptcy auction to a group of physicians and became Physicians Medical Center Carraway.

Unfortunately, it could not survive the economic stress and closed down on Halloween this year. "I personally think that it's not over, and someone's going to come in and revive it," Carraway said. "It's kind of sleeping right now."

The hospital's legacy rests in its employees, Carraway said in a letter he sent to all hospital staff upon its closing this fall. "The heritage of Carraway is not in a building, but in its people," said the letter. He went on to commend their values and faith proven by their staying and delivering "quality care to those in need during these hard times" simply because they cared about people.

Carraway said that of all the accomplishments at Carraway hospital during its century of service, he was most proud of all the doctors who trained there and are out in practice and all the employees who served at the hospital. "They have always been very compassionate and given their time to patients irregardless of their ability to pay. It was always a place that every employee that I knew was extremely proud to work for. It felt like a family of people that cared for each other."

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