Shelbourn Stevens is always ready with a Plan B. And as he’s learned, a Plan C can come in handy, as well.

As president of Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center in coastal Brunswick County, North Carolina, expecting the unexpected serves him – and his staff, patients and community – well.  

Stevens (pictured top right) with team members during Hurricane Florence
Stevens (pictured top right) with team members during Hurricane Florence

In September of 2018, when Hurricane Florence devastated much of North Carolina’s coastline, Stevens and more than 180 team members were sheltered at the hospital – for six nights. Flooding and downed trees made roads impassable.

“More than 50 of our team members had significant damage to their homes or lost their homes entirely,” Stevens said. Yet they weren’t focused on their homes. They were focused on caring for patients. Stevens manned the hospital’s command center and pitched in to help team members throughout the hospital during that fraught week.

‘A soft approach’

Stevens is a compassionate leader with what Brunswick Medical Center's chief nursing officer Jill Ward calls a “soft approach.”

“He’s very involved, very hands-on,” she said. “He won’t ask you to do anything he wouldn’t do. If a patient or family member needs something, Shelbourn doesn’t ask someone else to do it. He takes care of it himself.”

Ward noted that Stevens even helped out with cooking for the team living at the hospital during the Hurricane. “Shelbourn made home-cooked meals and brought them in for those of us working during the storm,” Ward recalled. “There was enough for team members working throughout the hospital.”

Stevens is always looking for lessons in life’s inevitable hardships. “We learned to plan for a longer stay,” he said of Hurricane Florence. It had been predicted that power could be out and roads impassable for three or four days. It was twice that long.

“When Hurricane Dorian approached earlier this year, we knew to tell people to pack enough clothes to last for longer than we think we’ll be here.”

Another lesson? “We’ve added this to our emergency checklist,” he said. “Check the parking lots. We’d never thought to do that because we’d never had this situation before. But we had nine families trapped in their cars in our parking lot. Once they were discovered, we made room for them inside in the lobby and waiting areas. We put out cots and did what we could do make them comfortable.”

Ward and Stevens at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center
Ward and Stevens at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center

A disaster forces you to improvise.

Small-town roots

As a boy growing up in tiny Danbury, North Carolina, Stevens couldn’t have imagined himself navigating a staff of more than 180 through a natural disaster. His parents were the third generation to run the family business – a grocery store that eventually became a furniture and appliance store.

Stevens spent a lot of time at his grandparents’ house. His grandmother ran a beauty shop out of their home. (“It was just like Steel Magnolias,” he said. “I grew up hearing all the town gossip.”) And he helped his grandmother care for his grandfather who had diabetes and was bedridden.

It was caring for him that led Stevens to pursue health care as a calling. He began his career in 1990 as a respiratory aide with Novant Health, and will reach his 30-year anniversary with Novant Health in February 2020. His career progressed through the years and he earned both his bachelor’s degree and an MBA while working full time.

Stevens began his career in a large hospital setting – Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, with more than 900 beds. In 2006, he was offered the opportunity to relocate to what was then Brunswick Community Hospital. He was excited to return to the small-town life he loves and, in 2012, he was named to take the reins from his mentor, Denise Mihal, who’d been promoted to another leadership role for Novant Health.

“Denise is an awesome mentor,” he said. “She always gave me projects that challenged me and helped me grow.”

Under Mihal’s leadership, Stevens played an important role in the transition from the original Brunswick Community Hospital to its new, state-of-the-art facility in 2011.

Stevens enjoys meeting and talking with patients and their families. He often trades the coat and tie for a more casual look and doesn’t mention he’s the hospital president. “People may not tell you everything they want or need to say unless they see that you are approachable,” he explained. “And I want to know everything about their hospital experience.”

Although he’s been in hospital administration for years, it’s this type of patient contact he really thrives on. He’s still involved with the North Carolina Society for Respiratory Care and maintains his acute respiratory care practitioner license.

Though he is modest about it, Stevens has received plenty of honors, including the 2018 D.U.D.E. award from the Brunswick County Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Business group. The D.U.D.E. award is presented to a businessman who has demonstrated leadership and a commitment to significantly advancing women in business. “My senior team is all female,” Stevens said, “and we have a workforce that is more than 90% female. I am proud of all the work we have done to recognize diversity and inclusion at Novant Health.”

He’s led his team through natural disasters and loss and grief. When Brunswick Medical Center’s chief nursing officer Angie Fisher died tragically in 2015 as a result of a car accident, it was devastating. “Angie lit up a room,” he said. “Everyone loved her. Leading the team through our shared grief was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.”

Stevens served as a pallbearer at her funeral. And along with Angie’s family, he helped establish the Angela M. Fisher Memorial Education Fund, which helps fund the continuing education and certification of team members at Brunswick Medical Center.  

Stevens loves his work and his community. “The best place to be is at the coast,” he said. “It has been incredibly rewarding to come to this small, fast-growing community and partner with the team to expand health care services to meet the increasing need in Brunswick County.”