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Medical Milestones

History captivates when comprehended through the eyes of those who lived it. The long list of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center’s accomplishments and accolades is interesting enough, especially since it includes first after first: first blood flow meter, first hand re-implantation, first lithotripter, first vacuum-assisted closure for treating wounds. Sounds impressive. But now think about the people whose lives have been saved or dramatically improved by this Winston-Salem institution.

First, there’s Robert Pennell, a 26-year-old inmate whose hand was accidentally amputated by a single blow of a bush axe on June 14, 1965. The prison roadwork gang was trimming limbs from a fallen tree near Lowgap, NC, when Pennell fell. “He stuck out his arm to catch himself on the tree as a fellow prisoner swung an axe that Pennell had sharpened himself just a couple of hours earlier. The whack severed the arm cleanly at about the spot where you wear your wristwatch,” according to the summer 1965 edition of the Bowman Gray School of Medicine’s Medical Alumni Notes.

A fellow prisoner improvised a tourniquet, and Pennell was rushed – his hand resting beside him in a bucket of ice — to what was then called North Carolina Baptist Hospital, where Dr. Jesse H. Meredith was about to get the chance to become the first U.S. surgeon to reattach a human hand. Within 90 minutes of the accident, the director of the surgery research laboratory was putting his research to the test. Meredith, using surgical tools that today would be considered crude, set the bones, sutured the arteries, repaired the severed tendons and nerves, and sewed up the skin in a dramatic and successful eight-hour operation.

Next, consider the case of a 54-year-old Kings Mountain man who was admitted to Baptist Hospital in 1986 with a painful stone in the left hepatic duct, which drains bile from the left half of the liver. The patient had suffered previous stones, causing the earlier removal of his gall bladder. But this time, Baptist Hospital had a new weapon to fight the stones: an experimental German lithotripter. Now commonplace, the technology that pulverizes stones into more easily passed fragments was revolutionary at the time. Baptist Hospital was the first in the nation to use lithotripsy to successfully break up stones in the common bile duct.

Fast-forward to 1990, when Dr. Louis Argenta, professor and chairman of the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, lay awake thinking about the case of a diabetic patient suffering from multiple bedsores. “I woke up one night thinking about his case and the idea came to me,” Argenta told Medical Alumni News in April 1992. The idea – another first for the medical center – was the Vacuum-Assisted Closure wound-healing device that is now used worldwide to promote healing in large abdominal wounds, fight infection following open-heart surgery, and enhance healing of burns. Argenta and bioengineer Michael Morykwas designed the suction device to draw harmful fluid from the wound and dramatically decrease healing time. For Argenta’s diabetic patient, the original device pulled two liters of fluid over a weekend, and within two weeks, the sores had healed.

In the May 10, 1942 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, an article lauds the invention and development of the first blood flow meters by students and faculty of the Bowman Gray School of Medicine. An advertisement on the same page by the Winchester-Ritch Surgical Company in Greensboro, NC, extends “our heartiest congratulations” to the people of Winston-Salem on the open house of “your modern, new Bowman Gray School of Medicine of Wake Forest College and the Modernized and Enlarged Baptist Hospital.” The ad goes on to say that “Winston-Salem should be generously praised for these outstanding and humane expressions of social, medical and civic progress which will so greatly benefit this entire section of North Carolina.”

Indeed. The ad copy would prove to be prophetic in the seven decades following its publication as Wake Forest Baptist went on to play a significant role in medicine not only in the state, but in the nation and around the world. In addition to the specific cases mentioned above, the medical center has claimed a host of medical milestones in such varied areas as atherosclerosis, cancer, cardiology, radiology, stroke, surgery, ultrasound and urology. Notable firsts in addition to those detailed above include: pioneering laryngeal framework surgery; first implantation of a vagal nerve stimulator for epileptic patients; first laser surgery to open a blocked artery in North Carolina; first facility in the world to house geriatric acute care, transitional care, psychiatry and rehabilitation in one place; and the first live Internet broadcast of a deep brain stimulator implantation surgery for Parkinson’s disease.


“Hand Reimplantation Termed Successful.” Medical Alumni Notes, Summer 1965, p. 1.

“Lithotripter Saves Cost and Pain.” Baptist Hospital Topics, Winter 1985, p. 1.

“Lithotripter Pulverizes Gallstone.” Baptist Hospital Topics, Fall 1986.

“Doctors Develop Technique to Speed Healing of Wounds.” Around the Medical Center, February 1994.

“Blood Flow Meters Are Built Here.” Winston-Salem Journal, May 10, 1942, pp. 16-17.

Massogha, Michael P. “A History of ‘Firsts’ for Wake Forest University School of Medicine.” Visions, Winter/Spring 2003, pp. 14-19.

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