Mushrooms have long been considered to have mystical powers. So it might not be too much of a stretch to consider their role in Bill Hillenbrand’s story.

A member of Batesville, Ind.’s Hillenbrand family—which built one of the nation’s largest industrial fortunes during the early 20th century—Hillenbrand is the son of W August Hillenbrand, retired president and CEO of Hillenbrand Inc., and grandson of William A. (also “Bill”) Hillenbrand, an innovator who created leading hospital bed maker, Hill-Rom, on the eve of the Great Depression.

William A. was the second of four sons of John A. Hillenbrand, an entrepreneur who rescued the Batesville Casket Co. from bankruptcy in 1906 and built it into the nation’s largest casket maker.

While his brothers concentrated on other aspects of the business, William A. focused on improving health care. 

Young Bill, 46, says his grandfather was sent by his great-grandfather to St. Louis to obtain clergy and nuns to staff a community hospital in Batesville. 

“The archbishop told my grandfather he could get the staff, but said, ‘I think you’re crazy to start a hospital.’ My grandfather asked why, and he said, ‘Because hospitals are places people go to die; they don’t go there to seek care.’ That made my grandfather curious.”

Back then hospitals were cold, uninviting places, consisting of wards of up to 20 patients in steel beds with little or no privacy. William A. spent a year visiting hospitals and vowed “to bring the home into the hospital” by crafting wooden furniture to create a warmer, more comfortable environment.

William A. eventually obtained more than 40 patents for his innovations. Hill-Rom introduced the first adjustable double pedestal over-bed table, the first adjustable “Hi-Lo” bed, the first short side rails, the first electric motor bed, the first all-electric bed and the first retractable bed.

Fast-forward about 40 years or so. Bill Hillenbrand’s memories of his grandfather aren’t about business or hospital beds but about spending time on the family farm hunting for mushrooms and walnuts or picking blackberries.

“He was a very strong person in our family,” says Bill of his grandfather, who died in 1986 at the age of 81. 

“He would come to our house after school and we’d go out to the farm… Morel mushrooms were his favorite thing to hunt. It was his passion.”

Bill spent about 15 years at Hill-Rom in various roles in sales, marketing and operations before leaving about eight years ago. 

One nagging problem stuck in his mind from that time, though.

“Every time we came out with a new bed,” he says, “customers would love the new features, but they’d always ask, ‘When are you going to figure out how to pull a patient up in bed?’”

Unless you’ve spent any time confined to a hospital bed, it might not seem like a big deal. But it is to patients, caregivers and hospital administrators. The effects of gravity when the head of the bed is elevated move the patient to the foot of the bed requiring they be repositioned several times a day. 

Although there are mobile lifts to move patients in bed, they’re inconvenient and seldom used, Bill says. In most hospitals, the standard of care is for caregivers, usually two or more, to lift the patient up in the bed manually or with what’s known as a slide or draw sheet. 

The problem is all that lifting exposes caregivers to frequent injuries and that leads to increasingly costly worker’s comp claims for hospitals.

A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found the rate of musculoskeletal injuries from overexertion for health care occupations was among the highest for all U.S. industries and twice the average. For patients, being moved manually is uncomfortable and can cause skin shear and tears and contribute to bed ulcers.

Looking into different ways to reposition patients that would be easier on patients and caregivers, Bill found patents for unsuccessful ideas going back more than 100 years. 

One day around the pool in the backyard of his parents’ home a light bulb went off.

“The pool cover operated on a track and at the push of button, the cover winds up at one end of the pool,” says Bill. “I thought wow! What if you take that concept and apply it to a mattress?”

That led Bill to develop the Hercules Patient Repositioning System.

With the Hercules system, instead of lifting the patient, the patient stays in place, and, at the push of a button, rides up in the bed as the extra long sheet collects at the head of the bed.

The patented system, named a Medical Design Excellence Award winner last year, consists of a drive unit below the head of the bed and a mattress with clips on the side to guide a 16-foot long synthetic sheet to reduce abrasions. The system can accommodate up to 12 repositionings on a single sheet and patients weighing up to 750 pounds.

Since introducing the system last year, it has been purchased by 13 hospitals in eight states. “Every hospital that has purchased it has purchased a second time or intends to purchase in their new budget cycle,” Bill says.

The Christ Hospital participated in a yearlong, as-yet-unpublished, study of the Hercules system and its impact, and gave it glowing reviews.

Caroline Pritchard, clinical nurse specialist at Christ, says, “It is more comfortable for patients, and the wait time [for repositioning] is less. When they need to be repositioned they notify the nurse and she comes in and pushes the button and moves the patient up.”

She says it also preserves patient dignity. “They don’t have five people around the bed. Just one person.” 

Bill’s company, the Morel Co.—named in tribute to his grandfather—recently signed a nationwide distribution agreement with Sizewise Worldwide, a leading supplier of bariatric beds to hospitals. Beyond hospitals, Bill sees applications for long-term care and nursing home markets, and eventually home health care.

Bill says people tell him that health care innovation is in his family’s DNA. Besides his grandfather’s history of innovation, his father spent more than 40 years growing Hill-Rom and Hillenbrand, before the companies were split up.

When he told his father about the Hercules system, Bill says, “He told me, ‘You know your grandfather would be proud of you.’ That means a lot to me. I definitely think my grandfather was looking over my shoulder.”