Long affiliation with Baptist pays off for San Marco resident

Long affiliation with Baptist pays off for San Marco resident
Baptist Memorial Hospital, 1955

When Baptist Medical Center first approached Betty Benfield in 2006 about selling her home in San Marco, she would have none of it. She and her husband had bought their two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow at 937 Dante Place for $10,500 in August of 1962. It was the house where their daughter Betsy grew up. It was the house where their daughter Beverly Anne lived briefly before she died.

Over the years, Benfield had watched Baptist Hospital and Nemours Children’s Specialty Care slowly encroach on her neighborhood. Gradually the area from Gary Street to Childrens Way transformed from a cozy residential enclave into a commercial outlier.

“When we first lived here, it was lovely. A lot of children and elderly people were here. It was a real family neighborhood. There was a sidewalk in front of our house. Kids rode their bicycles on the sidewalk,” she said.

So when Baptist made Benfield an offer in 2008, she turned it down flat. “She said, ‘I’m not selling for a parking lot,’” recalled Benfield’s daughter, Betsy Harper. “She told them she would take no less than a million dollars and even then she would charge them for air space.”

But on April 20, 2015, Benfield was more than happy to hand over the keys to her 1,050-square-foot home and sign on the dotted line. The difference was not only money – although she got a big number – but purpose. About a year ago, Baptist Medical Center announced plans to join forces with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and bring one of the country’s top cancer treatment and research facilities to Jacksonville. Benfield’s home on Dante Place became ground zero for where Baptist hoped to build the new hospital.

“When I heard MD Anderson was coming I was very pleased that my property would be used to help treat cancer patients. This is something near and dear to my heart,” Benfield said. “It was bittersweet. I loved my little home and it was hard to give it up, but with MD Anderson coming, how could I say no?”

Baptist paid Benfield $558,000 for her home. The price included $8,000 for a long-term hospital bed and nightstand she could use when she moved to Julington Creek to live with Betsy, son-in-law Mike Harper and 14-year-old grandson Ben.

Also included are plans to immortalize Benfield with a plaque on the walls of the new MD Anderson facility. The plaque will tell the story of Benfield’s long career with the health system and note that her home once stood in the same place as the new facility.

“Betty Benfield has been an important part of Baptist Health’s history in our community.  And so it seems fitting that the sale of her family home will help usher in an exciting part of our future – the new Baptist/MD Anderson Cancer Center,” said Audrey Moran, Senior Vice President for Social Responsibility and Community Advocacy at Baptist Health.

Knowing her mother will be forever a part of the new cancer center is particularly meaningful, Harper said. “That’s the only thing that brought me to tears,” Betsy said. “I was blown away by that.”

Long career

Betty Benfield, Betsy Harper

Betty Benfield, Betsy Harper

Although Benfield had refused to entertain Baptist’s first offer seven years before, it was not for lack of love for Baptist. Her affiliation with the Southbank hospital has been a long and happy one.

Born and raised in South Carolina, Benfield moved to Jacksonville after marrying her husband Emory in 1960. The hospital was only five years old when Baptist Memorial Hospital hired her as a full-time medical secretary. At that time, Benfield recalled the main hospital was a five-story building with 268 beds, and Wolfson Children’s Hospital comprised a two-story building adjacent to the hospital on the Southbank of the St. Johns River.

Betsy was born at Baptist in July 1961, and Benfield took a short break to stay home with her daughter. In the meantime, she and her husband bought the house on Dante Place in 1962. It became a short commute for Benfield when she returned to Baptist in 1963, taking a job as a secretary in its public relations department.

During this time, Benfield often walked to work. Baptist had only 500 employees and was a “low” building by the river, she said. The intersection of Gary and Palm Streets was highly trafficked. The Fuller Warren Bridge was a drawbridge with a tollbooth and the high overpass leading to the bridge had not been built.

“It was a dangerous highway where I had to cross,” Benfield said. “It was always busy. I had to be very cautious.”

When she was very young, Betsy played in Friendship Park and the bawl of the trains nearby bothered her. “I couldn’t handle the sound of trains growing up. Now I work for East Coast Railway,” she said, laughing at the irony.

When Hurricane Dora hit in 1964, three feet of water swirled around the foundation of Benfield’s house and an inch of river crept over her living room floor.

“My husband took Betsy out on his shoulders,” Benfield recalled. “When he walked out of the house, the water was knee deep.”

“I can remember a boat floating down Dante Place,” Harper said. “I recall looking down at the water.”

The Benfields took refuge at Baptist Hospital for three days and nights, where they were given their own room and Betsy was able to play with other children.

Answer to prayer

In 1966, Benfield’s second daughter, Beverly Anne, was born at Baptist. When the previously healthy nine-pound, five-ounce baby began to fail due to cysts on her kidneys 10 weeks later, she died at Baptist.

Meanwhile, Benfield continued to work at the hospital and was promoted to Assistant Director of Public Relations in 1968. During her tenure she served as editor of the monthly employee newsletter, Stethoscope, and was responsible for the “Mother’s Day Offering,” a fundraiser she coordinated with local churches to collect donations for indigent patients that had been admitted to the hospital. She also worked as a surgical photographer on certain procedures by a physician’s group. By the time she left Baptist to be full-time mother to 10-year-old Betsy, she had been made a member of the hospital’s six-member executive committee.

“Betsy asked me to quit because she didn’t want to go to extended day,” Benfield said.

When her daughter turned 16, Benfield returned again to Baptist, working as a hematology/oncology researcher with Dr. Neil Abramson helping with clinical trials. She finally retired in 1984 because her husband was ill.

In retirement, Benfield cared for her husband, attended church and “power” walked five miles a day down River Road and through San Marco. She also started an abandoned cat rescue, at one time housing 28 felines in her “Kitty Kondo,” a screened enclosure in back of her house. “She turned into the San Marco cat lady,” Harper said. “It was a hobby,” Benfield explained.

In 1998, Emory died at Baptist of complications from prostate cancer. “Finding a cure for cancer is important to me,” Benfield said.

Harper agreed. “Baptist is an answer to prayer, not just for us, but for all of Jacksonville due to the fact that MD Anderson Cancer facility will be here,” she said. “It will have every aspect of everything you need to know about cancer. It will save lives, not just in the southeast region, but also throughout the country. MD Anderson could save our lives. It’s a phenomenal thing that is happening for Jacksonville.”

By Marcia Hodgson
News Editor

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