Mary Gillam addressed a large crowd on Monday afternoon celebrating the beginning of construction on a new surgical tower at UNC. Gillam said that moment would have seemed impossible two years before, after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Construction on UNC Health Care Surgical Tower. Photo via Blake Hodge.

“Until then, I had never been sick. So, I ignored my symptoms,” she told the crowd. “After all, we know moms don’t get sick days.”

Gillam went to her doctor in eastern North Carolina, who immediately told her she needed to go to the Emergency Room. After a scan, she was told there was a mass on her pancreas. She was then on the way to Chapel Hill for further tests.

The mom of three recalled the hours-long drive in from Elizabeth City.

“Little was said but a million thoughts were running through my mind,” she said. “None were good: will I see my children grow into adulthood, get married, have families of their own?”

Gillam said the caring treatment she received from UNC Health Care helped ease her mind during her surgery and subsequent recovery.

“Dr. Kim was so gentle with his words; he was the poster child of wisdom and compassion,” Gillam said. “He and the surgical team explained in great detail what was to come. They’re empathy in the face of this emotional diagnosis was my lifeline.”

Chair of the UNC Health Care Board of Directors Charlie Owen, who is from Asheville, said that caring nature of providers at UNC is a hallmark for the system.

“The great quality of care that’s delivered in Chapel Hill, but more importantly the culture of caring that all of you represent.”

UNC Health Care CEO and dean of the School of Medicine Dr. Wesley Burks said he got an example of that care recently through the patient experience as his wife has had four surgeries in the last 18 months after a cancer diagnosis.

“And no matter how much we know as physicians, it’s still a pretty scary time,” he said. “The compassion of our team and their knowledge made it a little easier at times.”

Dr. Melina Kibbe – chair of the department of surgery at UNC – said the new facility will allow that care to be elevated even further.

UNC Health Care Surgical Tower groundbreaking. Photo via Blake Hodge.

“Medicine – both now and how we teach it – has always been evolving,” she said. “And so, we must change with the new technologies as they become available to meet these needs.

“So, today we do a lot of things differently; we perform minimally invasive, endovascular, robotic, image-based operations. And these are things that were unimaginable back when the North Carolina Memorial Hospital was first constructed in the 1950s.”

Burks said the new facility, which will be the largest on the university’s medical campus, will be eye-catching, but he added it is still the health care providers and staff that make UNC Health Care what it is.

“Concrete, steel and glass: these are the elements that make up the structure of our new building. But there’s a center structure to the building that I call the heart,” he said. “And that heart are the nurses, the anesthesiologist, the surgeons and many of our other colleagues who will work in the building each day and take care of our patients and our families.”

The new surgical tower is expected to open in 2022 and will reach seven stories tall, covering more than 333,000 square feet with 24 operating rooms, 56 private pre- and post-op rooms and family waiting areas on each level.

Cover photo rendering via UNC Health Care