Kari Engholm was a typical hospital administrator. Her busy workdays were full of the kind of stress, anxiety and schedule juggling that are common in the executive offices of hospitals and healthcare systems. For a working mother such as Engholm, the challenges and time pressures can multiply.
But the chief executive officer of 25-bed Dallas County Hospital in Perry, Iowa, never expected sympathy from her peers in healthcare administration. Yet she desperately needs your prayers, support and a little bit of understanding now.
Engholm's life took a tragic turn on June 26. Shortly before 7 a.m., the 34-year-old CEO dropped her 4-year-old son off at a day-care center and intently focused on the events that lay ahead as she drove the minivan 10 blocks to the hospital parking lot. She simply forgot that a change in her husband's schedule meant that she was to drop off 7-month-old Clare at the baby sitter's home. That's right, she forgot, and it cost Clare her life.
She reportedly had been dealing with budget cuts, possible reductions in the county's ambulance service and the opening of a new assisted-living center next to the hospital. At the end of her workday, the boss left to pick up young Eric. At the day-care center, she made the horrifying discovery that Clare had been left alone in the vehicle to perish in the 90-degree heat.
The baby was dead, and the hospital CEO's life is in shambles. As prosecutors weigh possible charges, the hospital has placed Engholm on indefinite leave of absence. But no court of law or jail sentence could match the shame, humiliation and inner turmoil that she may never escape. At this point, the fate of her career as a hospital administrator is almost irrelevant.
Clare's death has become a frequent topic in central Iowa. From the radio talk shows in Des Moines to the Hy-Vee store in Perry, everyone has an opinion. But few offer answers or an understanding of how something like this could happen to such an intelligent and efficient leader.
It's easy to condemn Engholm for her mistake. She and her family have already paid the greatest sacrifice for that behavior. Maybe those of us with similar professional backgrounds can muster some empathy for her and vow to remember that there are many things more important than the next big meeting.