James Crossingham Jr.

Man sees Mayo Clinic at its best during two-month hospital recovery

By Mayo Clinic Staff

"When I came to Saint Marys, it was like coming home," Big Jim says.

The 2005 flight seemed like any other to James Crossingham Jr. It was the end of October, the weather conditions were clear, and his small plane was running well as he piloted it from Casper, Wyo., to his ranch in Kaycee, Wyo. His son, James Crossingham III, sat in the passenger seat behind him. But little did they know, Big Jim, as the family calls the father, had an undiagnosed heart condition. It presented itself for the first time as he was landing his plane.

During the heart incident, Big Jim stalled the plane 30 feet above the grass landing strip. The plane slammed into the ground and his seat harness failed, letting his head smash into the instrument panel. His son broke his shoulder, and Big Jim suffered massive head injuries.

An emergency rescue team stabilized Big Jim at the scene and flew him by helicopter to a nearby hospital. His prognosis looked poor. Fewer than 10 percent of people with his type of injuries survive. Plus there was the heart condition. Big Jim and his wife, Helen, knew they needed to get to Mayo Clinic to repair the extensive damage to his face and nasal passages. But first, he needed bypass heart surgery.

Once stable, Big Jim transferred to Mayo Clinic Hospital — Rochester, Saint Marys Campus, via air ambulance and was admitted through the emergency department. He stayed two months.

A home away from home

The atmosphere at Saint Marys campus reminded Big Jim of his hometown, Mount Airy, N.C. Many claim Mount Airy was the inspiration for Mayberry, the fictional town of the 1960s sitcom "The Andy Griffith Show." Mount Airy was the real-life hometown of Andy Griffith, whom Big Jim went to school with.

"The staff joked with each other, called each other by first name," he remembers. "You could tell they're comfortable with each other. That gives you confidence."

Big Jim was born in Mount Airy in 1929, three years after his father, James H. Crossingham, moved the family textile business to town. The business was started 37 years before by Big Jim's grandfather in Germantown, Pa. The company eventually became Spencer's Inc., which mostly made union suits until it changed its focus to infant and children's clothing to keep up with the baby boom after World War II.

Big Jim's father ran the small-town company according to their family's values and deep faith. He taught Big Jim the importance of community responsibility and loyalty to workers by being one of the first in the area to offer employee benefits. The employees rewarded the company with strong growth, and it eventually occupied 10 acres in the middle of town and employed more than 2,000 people.

By his mid-20s, Big Jim applied his inherited business values to establish the Ararat Rock Products Co. in 1955. Big Jim, who has said, "We have a policy manual — it's called the Bible," named the company for the nearby Ararat River, whose name has a strong Biblical connection. Many believe Mount Ararat was where Noah landed the ark after the Great Flood in the book of Genesis.

Big Jim and Helen grew the company into one of the largest independent producers of crushed stone in North Carolina. Big Jim also served as CEO of Spencer's Inc., until its closing in 2007.

Dogged determination

When Big Jim came to Saint Marys campus, he says his face was "pulp" and was separated from his skull, which was fractured. Besides that, doctors had to deal with his heart condition. Then they found that the accident ripped a small hole in his gut.

Coordinated teams of caregivers balanced all the procedures and surgeries, including extensive facial repairs that required 16 steel plates, 96 screws and two pieces of bone harvested from his skull.

"That's what we do as trauma surgeons and critical care surgeons — we care for acute life-threatening illness and coordinate reconstructive care," says surgeon Michael P. Bannon, M.D. "It's what Mayo can do. Our depth of resources, our collegiality and our professionalism makes it very easy to work across teams like that."

Throughout the tough recovery, Big Jim was determined to get out of the hospital and resume his life. His wife of 53 years, Helen, and two of his daughters, Honey and Ann, were next to him the whole time. Ann remembers that "if the doctors told Dad to walk twice around the unit, he'd walk 10 times."

Soon the family was dealt another devastating blow. During Big Jim's recovery, Helen was also admitted to Saint Marys campus, where she died of complications of previous medical conditions. Both Honey and Ann recall how compassionate the staff was.

During that time, the family says they saw the essence of Mayo Clinic, how everyone works as a team to help the patient heal. Big Jim came to know all 37 nurses and the other staff members on his unit, seeing their empathy for patients. He saw smooth transitions between shifts and across departments. He saw the caregivers' dedication and professionalism at the same time he heard them laughing and joking with one another and with patients. As a man who spent a lifetime running companies, he understood this system was something special.

"When I came to Saint Marys, it was like coming home," he says. "It's well-organized and effective. People cut across red tape to get the job done. There's respect, but a sense of community."

He and his family also felt a strong spiritual presence at Saint Marys campus. His family spent a lot of time in the hospital helping their father recover. They were his advocates and coordinators of care.

"You feel embraced," Ann says. "That's priceless for patients and their families."

Honey remembers, "You'll be walking down the hall, and you hear piano music being played from one of two pianos provided for patients or guests. People stop and listen. It's very emotional. It breaks down barriers and encourages people to reach out to one another, and at the same time you're meeting people from all over the world."

When Big Jim was discharged, he was touched by the dedication of the staff. "They all came to say goodbye," he says. "Some of them even came in on their day off."

Doing God's work

Big Jim says that God saved him so he could help others. He has turned over the day-to-day operation of the stone company to his grandson, James Crossingham IV, but Big Jim still works for the company, "delivering stone and the Word of God" with his dog and constant companion, Hutch.

He's also committed to ensuring that other people "can get the help they need from Mayo, the best place on earth to provide it." He gave a leadership gift to Mayo Clinic to make emergency care even better. As Saint Marys campus renovates and expands its emergency department, the gift helps embed tools to enhance care coordination and provide data so scientists can continually improve delivery methods. Big Jim's leadership gift to the project ensures patients in the future will receive the best care, just as he and his family have.

"By the grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and with the Mayo Clinic family's extraordinary medical talent and reverence for human life, Helen and I have been wonderfully blessed," he says. "Our shared profound gratitude compels me to help Mayo Clinic continue to provide exemplary compassionate medical care for others."