When it comes to problem-solving, Ruth Glaser isn’t afraid to walk a difficult path.

Growing up in the Midwest, she lived in foster care from fourth grade until she graduated from high school. Being shuttled through nine homes in nine years nurtured the determination and perseverance that she brings to her role as president of Novant Health Pender Medical Center. The words she lives by every day: Whatever you’re doing, do it really well. Or don’t do it at all.

Ruth Glaser, president of Pender Medical Center, wears a black shirt and smiles at the camera.
Ruth Glaser

“I tend to be a person who is always going to root for the underdog. I’m not going to take the easy path,” Glaser said. “I think it's part of my personality that I'm always going to figure out a way to make something work. It might not be the most conventional way, but, you know, life's not very conventional.”

Glaser’s mantra is clear in the many changes she’s brought to the community hospital in Burgaw, about a half-hour drive north of Wilmington. You’ll see it in everything from the waiting room’s new furniture and gift shop to the increased number of services and physicians the hospital now provides. And this is just a glimpse of what’s happening today and soon to come, with a huge development — a new residency program — in progress now at Pender Medical Center.

Aiming high

In her 13th year as president and chief operating officer, Glaser aims high and doesn’t hesitate to ask for the resources the community needs.

“Being an advocate for people, whether it's the team members or the community, I just find enjoyment in doing that,” she said.

A self-described “bleeding heart,” she balances her powerful sense of empathy with robust organizational skills, a combination that led her into the health care field. After graduating with a sociology degree from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, she was browsing through a graduate school catalog and realized that the health care administration degree appealed to her primary strengths.

She completed her internship and administrative residency at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington before settling in rural Scotland County, where she worked until moving to Pender County in 2010.

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Investing in girls

Glaser’s childhood was filled with upheaval, but participating in the Girl Scouts of America provided one constant. She became a member of a Girl Scout troop in one of her early foster homes and still actively supports the organization. She served as a troop leader for many years during her daughter, Sarah’s, childhood. Now Glaser is a board director for the North Carolina Coastal Pines Girl Scouts.

Sometimes, there’s a crossover between her worlds as a Girl Scout leader and a hospital president. Recently, a parent contacted her through Facebook Messenger and asked, “Do you remember my daughter? You were her Girl Scout troop leader many years ago. You helped her get a job at the hospital.” The woman added: “She earned her doctorate degree. I'll never forget the impact you made on her life.”

Glaser teared up while recalling the story. “Well, that was pretty cool,” she said.

Living in the community

It’s just one telling example of the philosophy that Glaser brings to her job and the community. Pender Medical Center is central in her life.

“I live right here in the community,” Glaser said. “It’s where I want to be. This is not only my job, it’s my hospital.”

She wants the same quality of medical care for her neighbors and community members as she does for her own family. Part of this commitment is continuing to nurture a relationship with New Hanover Regional Medical Center, the hospital that provides critical support to Pender Medical Center.

New Hanover Regional Medical Center at sunset.
New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington

Providing critical access

Pender Medical Center is classified as a critical access hospital, a federal designation given to rural hospitals that operate 25 or fewer inpatient beds, provide a 24/7 ER and are located within 35 miles of another hospital. This means it’s a crucial entry point for care. If a patient needs services the hospital doesn’t offer, providers will deliver life-sustaining treatment during either a helicopter or ambulance ride to New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

Glaser pointed out that sometimes urgent circumstances, like an emergency surgery or baby delivery, have to happen immediately, without time for the commute. This is why, she said, the smaller community hospital has to be “just as good” as its larger sister in Wilmington.

In 1999, Pender Medical Center became part of the New Hanover Regional Medical Center network, uniting the two hospitals in improving healthcare services in the region. This relationship, Glaser said, only grew stronger when both hospitals became part of the Novant Health family in 2021.

Novant Health has just stepped it up even more," Glaser said. "They understand you should get care close to home."

Delivering remarkable care

For the residents of Burgaw, receiving top-notch care in their own community matters. Sue Cowan knows from experience. On April 18, 2022, a rainy day, she fell and broke her left arm. After an EMS call and a three-minute ambulance ride, she arrived at Pender Medical Center, where she was seen immediately, received X-rays and a referral for surgery, and was back home within an hour.

“Everyone I came in contact with was just as nice and helpful as could be,” she said.

Now nearly one year later, Cowan appreciates being cared for so quickly and close to home, without the stress of time and travel. Plus, she said, it’s comforting that she always sees someone she knows at Pender Medical Center.

“We’re so fortunate to have it,” she said. “I hope this hospital is here after I am. (Glaser) does an outstanding job. She really goes the extra mile with making the hospital a comfortable and pleasant place to be.”

Terry Wagner stands and smiles at the camera.
Terry Wagner

Wilmington resident Terry Wagner agrees, and she described the environment at Pender Medical Center as “amazing.” When she learned she would be undergoing cataract surgery at the hospital, about 40 minutes from her home, she was new to the region and had never visited Burgaw.

Wagner has high standards for medical care — she has worked in the health care industry for 40 years, in regions ranging from Boston, Mass., to southeast Alaska. Drawing from her depth of experience, she wondered, how will this compare?

The verdict: “I would rate it 10 stars out of 10,” she said. “Everyone was customer-service focused, and people genuinely love working there. You don’t get that unless someone is creating that. (Glaser) has done an amazing job. She has a lot to be proud of.”

Growing a residency

As a Novant Health hospital, Pender Medical Center continues to be a strong advocate offering unwavering support for the development of a rural residency track for the family medicine residency program in Wilmington. In 2022, the program received grant funding, and the first medical professionals are slated to begin on site in July 2025. This means that doctors who have just completed medical school will train at Pender Medical Center and Black River Health Services in Burgaw. The program will create jobs and bring new medical professionals who are educated in the latest techniques and advancements into the region. It’s a scenario that Glaser described as beyond her “wildest dreams.”

“It’s going to change the whole landscape of the organization, to have residents in the halls here and to be growing physicians right here so that they can then practice here in this community,” Glaser said. “It's a huge opportunity for Pender County.”

Dr. Jospeh Pino is wearing a white coat and smiling at the camera.
Dr. Joseph Pino

Dr. Joseph Pino, Novant Health’s senior vice president of medical education and executive director of the South East Area Health Education Center (SEAHEC), is working with Glaser, along with several other partnering organizations, to set the wheels in motion for the new residency program.

“This is very exciting and could not have been made possible without the support from Novant Health to start us down this path,” Pino said.

Glaser refers to this as the last piece of the puzzle: implementing a sustainable system for increasing access to primary care doctors in the region. “And not only will it be primary care, but the residency will also have social work students and pharmacy students and other people,” she said. “It's just going to help the growth of these medical professionals in Pender County.”

But this relationship between the two hospitals currently hangs in the balance. The Pender County Board of Commissioners is considering switching Pender Medical Center to a new operator or selling it. Glaser said she hopes the board members can see the value that Novant Health brings to the community.

“With the new relationship with Novant Health, it has exponentially gotten better,” Glaser said. “The trajectory of change with Novant Health has been so much more positive for us than I would have ever expected.”

Supporting her community into the future

Glaser’s commitment to ensuring Burgaw’s thriving future extends outside of the hospital. She is a board member for the Burgaw Area Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping local businesses prosper.

Looking ahead to the years to come, regardless of how much the town of Burgaw might grow and evolve, her mantra will always remain the same.

Ruth Glaser and a colleague walk down the hallway of Pender Medical Center together.
“Our goal here is to provide the highest quality care and service that we can possibly provide,” she said. “Mediocre is not OK; we're striving to be the best. If you come here for care, you're going to get great care by people who care a lot about you because they're your friends and neighbors. And it is going to be the latest and greatest. It's just smaller. And you know, small is not a bad thing. It's just different.”