It’s been said that every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single person. In the case of Safe Sitter®, that person is our founder, Patricia A. Keener, M.D.
A board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist, Dr. Keener was nationally known for creating the Safe Sitter® program, but her contributions to children’s health and welfare went far beyond her role as founder and first medical director.
Patricia Keener knew from a young age that she wanted to become a doctor. It was a time when women were encouraged to be nurses instead of doctors, but she was not deterred, and so after graduating from Indiana University, she became one of only fifteen women in the class of 1968 at Indiana University School of Medicine.
After receiving her medical degree, Dr. Keener went on to do her residency training at the Medical College of South Carolina, where she received training in caring for pre-term and seriously ill infants. After residency, she returned to IU School of Medicine as the Director of Undergraduate Education for the Department of Pediatrics, and in 1974, she became Medical Director of Nurseries and Pediatrics at Community Hospital of Indianapolis, a position she would hold for 17 years.
It was during this time that an 18-month-old girl was brought to the emergency room at the hospital where Dr. Keener worked. The little girl, the daughter of a colleague who worked as a nurse on the postpartum unit, had choked while eating breakfast, and the adult babysitter caring for her didn’t know how to rescue a choking child. By the time the ambulance brought the girl to the hospital, it was too late.
Galvanized by this tragedy, Dr. Keener drafted a curriculum to teach life skills, safety skills, and first aid and rescue skills to middle-school-aged children. She taught the first class at her own children’s school, then she began teaching at Community Hospital. Eventually, she trained others to teach the classes, and the program soon spread across the Midwest. With the help of a grant from the Lilly Endowment, the program went national. By 1988, the program was being taught in 28 states, and by 1995, the program was taught in all 50 states. Presently, the program is taught by thousands of trained Instructors at over 900 Registered Providers across the country.
A fierce advocate of the medically underserved, Dr. Keener left Community Hospital in 1989 and returned to the IU School of Medicine where she worked in partnership with community leaders to improve care for underserved populations, overseeing the pediatrics program at a large metropolitan public hospital and serving as medical director of the Indianapolis Campaign for Healthy Babies, a public-private partnership that successfully addressed the infant mortality problem in Indianapolis.
Sensitized by the Healthy Babies experience to the importance of addressing the socioeconomic and cultural barriers to good medical care, Dr. Keener turned her attention to the training of young physicians and developed a cultural competency curriculum that eventually became the Office of Medical Service Learning at IU, providing opportunities for medical students to engage in volunteer work and service learning projects.
Dr. Keener was recognized throughout her career for her leadership, her vision, and her many accomplishments. She was awarded Indiana’s highest honor, the Sagamore of the Wabash, a tribute given to those who have rendered a distinguished service to the state. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics honored her with the Ross Education Award for outstanding accomplishments in pediatric postgraduate and continuing medical education. But perhaps her most treasured achievement was her family; with her husband Dr. Gerald T. Keener, Jr., she shared three children, and their family grew to include three grandchildren as well.
Dr. Keener passed away on July 8, 2021. It is impossible to overstate her incredible legacy. Thousands of people were impacted by Dr. Keener: medical students she mentored, patients she cared for, students she taught, community leaders she inspired – the list is endless. But she had a special impact on the more than half million students who took Safe Sitter®. Some graduates became caring babysitters and role models to younger children, others grew up and became parents themselves, better prepared to be nurturing caregivers because of all that they learned in their Safe Sitter® class, and still others were inspired to care for others by becoming medical professionals like Dr. Keener. Most dramatically, almost 200 graduates saved lives by using the first aid and rescue skills they learned in their Safe Sitter® classes to act in an emergency. It is a fitting legacy for someone who saved, changed, and inspired so many lives herself.