It started as a bet between friends – a local surgeon and a retired college professor from Columbia, S.C. – over the exact site of the first operating room at what was then Johnston Memorial Hospital.
Dr. Dennis Koffer believed the OR was on the first floor. But Dr. William L. “Billy” Poteat, whose father, Dr. Hubert M. Poteat Jr., was the first surgeon recruited to the hospital, had proof that it was, indeed, on the second floor.
A photo from the elder Poteat’s collection showed three gowned nurses standing in front of an OR table. And through the window, the rooftop of the nurses’ residence (later named the Rose-Hooks Annex) could be seen in the distance.
Last August, when Koffer showed a copy of the photo to Gina Cobb-Jackson, a veteran OR nurse, she began a quest to identify the women. After showing the photo to hospital retirees, she was able to put names to faces.
Turns out, the women were the original OR staff. And on a recent Sunday, the two surviving members, Louise Murray, 89, of Raleigh, 89, and Ruth Avery, 83, of Archer Lodge, 83, joined Cobb-Jackson for a tour of the modern ORs.
While they marveled at the technology, they talked about old times too.
As construction of the hospital was winding up in the fall of 1951, hospital administrator Lloyd Gilbert recruited Murray from what was then N.C. Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. He had been the purchasing agent at Baptist; she was an assistant OR supervisor.
When Murray arrived in Smithfield, the heat had not yet been turned on in the hospital. And it was so cold, she thought she might freeze to death while working, Murray recalled.
It was her job as OR supervisor to order the instruments and supplies and to hire the staff. She chose Avery, a graduate of Watts Hospital, and Helen Miller, a Baptist grad.
The hospital opened to patients on Dec. 15, 1951. While Murray doesn’t remember the date of the first surgery, she does remember that Dr. C.W. Furlonge, who formerly ran a hospital for black patients, assisted Poteat in that first case, a hernia repair.
Murray said the OR nurses did many tasks, from sterilizing the instruments to preparing the sutures to taking care of the patients as they awoke after surgery.
Of all the things she showed them on the tour, Cobb-Jackson said the women were most fascinated by the da Vinci surgical system. “They worked in the pre-scope days,” she said, “so they had a hard time understanding how a surgeon could operate on the patient from across the room.”
Cobb-Jackson, who came to work in the hospital’s OR in 1980 and worked briefly with Avery, remembers old-school practices too, such as re-sharpening hypodermic needles with a whet stone. “Our eras overlapped,” she said. “It’s amazing how far we’ve come in the last 62 years.”