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Stephenson steps up as Blank medical director


Dr. Stephen Stephenson says his choice to move to Iowa and join Blank Children’s Hospital as executive vice president and medical director was made the moment he left the job interviews.

“It was the people,” he said. “I interviewed with about 26 people in two days. I talked with the senior staff, physicians and trustees. They had the most consistent passion for their work and a focus on doing the right thing for kids. A lot of places have their values hanging on the wall, but [Blank staff members] were living their values.”  

Stephenson was happy at his former job as executive vice president of medical affairs at Children’s Hospital – Central California in Madera. Then an executive recruiter called to see if he would be interested in working for Blank. The position would allow him to fulfill his passions for practicing medicine, teaching and leadership, and to be more involved in fund raising and the operation of the hospital. He said it was a chance to have “an impact outside of the medical sphere.”  

Blank Children’s Hospital, Stephenson says, has an unusual focus beyond the hospital’s walls, especially through its child advocacy programs, which focus on issues such as education, hunger, abuse and child safety. It has programs to teach bicycle and fire safety and lobbies for legislation to improve the lives of children.  

“[The advocacy program] has ideas, energy and vision for about 10 more big projects, if we can just keep up,” he said.  

Stephenson, a pediatrician specializing in hematology/oncology, said one reason he was attracted to treating children is the way it affects more than their health.

“When you change the life of a child, you influence them 60 or 70 years down the road, maybe even future generations,” Stephenson said. “Besides, kids are just fun.”  

Stephenson, a self-proclaimed army brat, got his undergraduate degree from University of California, Berkeley, in the ’60s, an act of rebellion against his father, who wanted him to attend West Point. He attended medical school at University of Califoria, Davis. His rebellious phase over, Stephenson then completed his pediatric training in the military. The impetus to join the Army came from his wife, Martha. She had spent most of her life in one place, and wanted adventure and the chance to see the world. During his 22 years in the service, Stephenson rose through the ranks to colonel, and his family lived in Germany, Washington, D.C., California, Hawaii, Texas and Washington state. He left the military to work with Valley Children’s Hospital in Fresno, Calif.

Since he joined Blank in mid-February, Stephenson said his biggest job has been to listen and observe the way the hospital works.

“As for my early impressions, every week has been like a new Christmas,” he said. “I knew the hospital had great leaders, but everyone I’ve met here — rank and file, the nurses, physicians, secretaries, everyone — they all have that twinkle in their eyes, that dedication and vision. They hold each other accountable for that attitude.”

Stephenson says he knew from the first round of interviews that he wanted the job with Blank. He calls it love at first sight, and speculates that hospital officials felt the same way. Four days after his first interviews, they called and offered him a job. Two minutes later, he said yes.

His wife, Martha Stephenson, a reference librarian, is still living and working in California, helping their daughter, Tracy, and son, Bret, with their weddings, both of which are scheduled for June. After the festivities, she will join him in Des Moines.

While he waits for her, he says he’s also waiting to see if Des Moines and Blank are too good to be true. On the coasts, people are often so focused on their individual dreams that they find it difficult to work together for a common goal, Stephenson said. His experiences here have been so positive that he hasn’t yet seen any drawbacks. He says the biggest challenge he’s perceived thus far is focusing the energy and passion of the staff of Blank; its parent company, Iowa Health System; and the community to set orderly priorities and persist to meet goals.

“People here are so willing to give their time and money,” Stephenson said. “It’s a generous community, dedicated to children and families. When you see it with new eyes, it’s so impressive. I don’t understand why people have this sort of apologetic attitude in the Midwest and Des Moines. The truth is, it’s a great place.”  

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