It wasn’t unusual for Golden Bethune-Hill to crank up the song “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” to inspire the staff at Riverside.
The 1970s disco hit could be the signature tune about her legacy, too. The retired Executive Vice President of Riverside Regional Medical Center is a first generation college graduate. She established an endowed scholarship at her alma mater. At a time when many nurses entered their careers with a Diploma or Associate degree, Bethune-Hill earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.
During her tenure at Riverside, she modeled compassion and appreciation, regularly reminding the managers around her to “catch” employees doing something good and point it out. She kept an ear out to listen to patients or to mentor the younger nurses on staff.
“In order to get the leaders to understand that our role was to also help staff morale, I’d play, ‘Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,’ during our meetings,” says the Hampton resident. “Our position was to be open and available and supportive all the time.”
Bethune-Hill was the first African-American Director of Nursing at a Riverside hospital and would later become the first African-American Executive Vice President.
Despite retiring from Riverside in 2010, Bethune-Hill hasn’t slowed down a bit. She likes to say she “volunteers” full time at The Community Free Clinic of Newport News, but her role extends beyond that. The 76-year-old founded the clinic and is its executive director despite never taking a salary.
Funded by grants, monetary and in-kind donations, the clinic treats the uninsured, thriving, in part, because of the support from Riverside, which provides multiple resources, including flu shots and OB/GYN care, along with volunteer hours from physicians. A collaboration among McKinley Price, former president of the Riverside Health Care Foundation, and Riverside’s former CEO Richard Pearce led to the creation of the clinic in the first place.
“I had no idea what I was getting into, but I knew I had to make it work,” Bethune-Hill said. “Like they say in church, ‘You have to get out of the walls and take care of the people.’ We had thousands of patients right away. Riverside continues to just pour out its love and support for this clinic.”
Bethune-Hill has been helping people her entire life. She recollects hearing a childhood neighbor wail from the pain of bone cancer.
“If you can imagine a young person experiencing that, it was very difficult,” she says. “Then I had experiences with older people. I opened my heart and my mind that I wanted to do something to help if I could.”
Nursing was a logical career, and she had the grades at Carver High School to get into every school she applied to.
Scholarships helped pay her way to North Carolina A&T State University, where today The Golden Bethune-Hill Nursing Leadership Academy Endowed Scholarships supports freshmen nursing majors.
Dorothy McDaniel preached the importance of education to her daughter, named “Golden” for being the golden child in her mother’s eyes. McDaniel was the valedictorian of her high school and raised two daughters primarily as a single parent. She didn’t go to college nor did she drive. But she was an exemplary role model, working long hours at a drug store and later insurance company, while continually stressing, “always be the best you can be.”
Bethune-Hill was taught not to think in terms of can’t but to work toward what she could do, and that was anything she wanted. She was a voracious learner after graduating with her Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 1966, among the reasons she chose New York City’s Montefiore, the teaching hospital for Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
The supportive environment there laid the foundation for her professional success. An excellent onboarding program encouraged her to immerse herself in hands-on learning opportunities going forward. “I worked on a post-operative, open-heart surgery floor,” she said. “I learned a lot about what was going on. I had a chance to be in the operating room with one of the head cardiac surgeons. The experience of having a great orientation and learning some of the great leadership skills I needed was certainly helpful to me.”
She held positions at hospitals in New Jersey, Riverside and Lynchburg before returning home to Newport News, initially to be close to her mother, diagnosed with colon cancer. Bethune-Hill wasn’t home for a few days until she reached out to Riverside again.
“Can you come in today?” she was asked.
“How about tomorrow?” Bethune-Hill suggested.
Bethune-Hill became Executive Vice President at Riverside in December 2005. She pushed for increased educational opportunity for nurses and prioritized communication skills — one of the takeaways she learned as part of the master’s program at VCU.
“I knew we needed to work on communicating with patients and how we communicate with physicians,” she said. “Doctors have been in school for eight years, and nurses want to be treated and respected just as they are. But you have to communicate with them in ways that are different.”
While Bethune-Hill grew up during the turbulent Civil Rights era, she never felt intimidated by the circumstances around her. She lists Martin Luther King Jr. as one of her heroes and was even arrested with her classmates during a demonstration in North Carolina.
“They didn’t have room for us in jail,” she remembered with a laugh. “So, I ended up going back to my dorm.”
During her career, if she saw another nurse promoted in front of her and believed she was also deserving, she wouldn’t hesitate to speak up and ask, “What do I need to do?” The confidence instilled in her by her mother, whom she calls her “s-hero,” allowed her to overlook barriers in favor of opportunity.
Jesse Jackson remains a hero, too — he was a student at North Carolina A&T while she was there. She admires Barack Obama and is delighted that Harriet Tubman’s picture will soon be on the $20 bill.
Reflecting on Black History Month, Bethune-Hill appreciates the contributions of those heroes, but she returns to one thought.
“We should celebrate black history all the time.”
She doesn’t focus on her own accomplishments or trailblazing status at Riverside. Instead, she celebrates her mother, grateful for the example she provided.
“Her mindset was excellence,” Bethune-Hill said. “She did everything to make certain her children achieved at the highest level.”
Bethune-Hill established the Dorothy McDaniel scholarship at Hampton University in honor of her mother for students from single-parent homes.
Bethune-Hill and her husband, Charlie, married later in life after both lost their first spouses to cancer. Like his wife, Charlie Hill hasn’t slowed with age. He is President and Co-Founder of the Hampton Roads Prostate Health Forum, and the Hill Leadership Institute at Virginia State University is named in his honor.
Bethune-Hill focuses much of her time these days on addressing the disparities in health care in the community. She’s thrilled that the free clinic has recently added dental care. She’s determined to help the population that visits the clinic receive the COVID-19 vaccine when enough doses become available. She’s already working with Riverside in anticipation of that.
“If we can get the vaccines, we can make it happen,” she said. “I will reach out to nurse friends, get volunteers. We will make it happen.”
Ain’t No Stoppin’ Her Now.