BEMIDJI -- It was 10 years ago this week when North Country Health Services merged with Sanford Health at Bemidji’s hospital and clinic campus. Local health care providers and board members hoped that affiliating with Sanford’s expanding regional presence would forge a positive future.

Promises were made, and promises have been kept.

“The vision of this community has always been looking ahead for what we can provide for services to our patients and what we’re able to grow and continue to expand,” said Dr. David Wilcox, who has been a family medicine physician in Bemidji for 32 years and now also serves as vice president and medical officer for Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota. “And I would say that expansion was geometric after the merger.”

There are plenty of examples of that expansion. Sanford has added heart and vascular care, an orthopedics and sports medicine center, opened the Joe Lueken Cancer Center and opened a 14-bed residential support center for mental health patients.

Construction of a new 56,000-square-foot heart and vascular center was set to begin in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on that project. Four new intensive care unit beds and three new telemetry beds are being added.

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A recent aerial photo shows the expanded main campus of Sanford Bemidji Medical Center and Sanford Bemidji Clinic. Submitted photo.
A recent aerial photo shows the expanded main campus of Sanford Bemidji Medical Center and Sanford Bemidji Clinic. Submitted photo.

Numbers over the last 10 years also tell the story:

  • Employee count in Bemidji has increased by 47% to nearly 1,900.

  • The medical staff has more than doubled to more than 180 providers.

  • Over $75 million has been invested in the region.

  • The organization has provided $542 million in economic impact in the region.

RELATED: How Sanford Bemidji has changed since 2011

“We have a real mission to provide quality care close to home for people,” said Susan Jarvis, president and chief executive officer for Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, “Cardiology is a huge example. People were dying in this community because time is heart muscle, so if there’s a blizzard or the aircraft is already out on a run, we could only stabilize and do so much here, and they would have to go to the Cities or Fargo. By providing that cardiology program, it’s something that has saved lives.”

Wilcox said while Sanford is a large regional organization, it has allowed Bemidji to maintain local autonomy. He said an initial question was, “Can we manage ourselves, can we have choices about what care we deliver to our patients here? And the structure of Sanford is amenable to that. We really believe we manage ourselves and our patients and our community to the best that we can, and the larger organization allows us to do that. The promises kept over the years have demonstrated that it really works that way. We manage the care of our community here.”

Before the merger in 2011, North Country Regional Hospital employed about 1,000. Sanford Bemidji now has nearly 1,900 employees. (Pioneer file photo)
Before the merger in 2011, North Country Regional Hospital employed about 1,000. Sanford Bemidji now has nearly 1,900 employees. (Pioneer file photo)

Two former board chairs of North Country Health Services look back on the Sanford merger with pride. Kari Howe and Sylvia Wildgen chaired the board during the time North Country was pursuing an affiliation with a larger health care organization.

“I feel really good about the merger because our community would not have the facility that we have now and the reach that we have now,” said Howe.

“I agree,” Wildgen said. “I know we’ve lost some of the smaller aspects of it, but what we’ve gained outshines everything else. We’re able to recruit better doctors and more doctors. Before the affiliation we were struggling to find radiologists, we were struggling to find different physicians all over. And now being part of Sanford, we’re seeing that they want to come here. It’s been a major plus.”

Wilcox said you cannot overstate the importance of improved doctor recruitment.

“It’s hard to get physicians to come to rural communities,” he said. “It completely stabilized the medical staff. It expanded our services to different areas that weren’t really easy to accomplish. Cardiology would be one of them. We were probably the worst place in the state to have a heart attack, because if you’re in dire need for heart catheterization it’s all about time. We didn’t have that capability here, and after the merger we were able to develop that. Now we’re competitive with any of the metropolitan areas where your cath lab is down the street. And that’s a lever to every other way we’ve been able to extend services to patients. The medical staff has more than doubled, so that means that many more services, that much backup, the ability to have specialties supported. Sometimes it’s hard to be a single-specialty physician, but if you’re in a network of other physicians you can get on the phone and call a partner who may be in Fargo. You can deliver care close to home for that patient because they don’t have to make that trip, either through that phone call or the specialist being here in Bemidji.”

Jarvis, a registered nurse, joined Sanford in 2010 as executive director of emergency, trauma and critical services in Fargo. She moved to Bemidji in 2019 to become president and CEO of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota.

“I think over the next 10 years we’re really going to focus on our quality journey, to make sure everything that we provide is top notch,” Jarvis said. “We also will be focusing on where we can do a really, really good job and be the best at what we do and keep people close to home. Medicine is changing, but we’re always looking for what those opportunities are going to be. But my goal, and I know the leadership team’s goal, is to give the best quality care that we can close to home.”