Lifting Austin’s Profile: Physician Karen Swenson is FIT for her role as Chief of Staff

By Melanie Moore – October 4, 2011

Warming up for the 2010 Pumpkinhead Regatta on Lady Bird Lake, Dr. Karen Swenson—in the bow position of her two-person boat—looked away. The person in the bow position of Matt Knifton’s boat had also looked away and the two boats collided, Dr. Swenson’s spine stopping the other boat when their riggers slammed into her back and knocked her off her seat.

The first woman to be Chief of Staff at Seton Medical Center Austin, Swenson, who turns 57 October 5, works out seven times a week, including rowing with her rowing partner, Margaret Borden, at least once a week. She calls Knifton, who owns Texas Rowing Company, and his rowing partner her “collision buddies.”

“I think the fact that I was fit helped me tolerate the injury,” she said. “I know people get hurt when they’re doing things, but that’s an example of [how fitness helps]. So we took a little break, three weeks, and we’ve been rowing every week since.”

A self-described “social exerciser,” Swenson starts most days walking at 5:15 a.m.

“Dr [Diana] Weihs and Princess, our Golden Retriever, are my walking partners in the neighborhood pretty much every day at 5:15 a.m.,” she said. Swenson and Weihs started their obstetrics and gynecology practice, Women Partners in Health, 26 years ago, “in this very building,” Swenson said, sitting in the break room of their offices in the Austin’s Doctor’s Building on 34th Street behind Seton Medical Center.

“MK Hage owned the building,” she said. “The first time we came, we had hard hats on and he wanted us to design our space. He kept the space next to us empty and he said, ‘Someday you’re going to connect and you’ll have one big women’s clinic.’ He was quite a visionary.” The practice now has seven physicians (all women) and an imaging center. “We can do mammograms and bone density studies here,” she said. They occupy two floors in the building. (The practice has recently become part of Central Texas OB/GYN Associates, a merger of five local practices that now boasts 40 physicians.)

Swenson and Weihs started practicing at Seton Medical Center Austin and at the same time had faculty appointments at the medical center which is now the University Medical Center at Brackenridge.

“For the first few years we did both things and then slowly migrated over here [to Seton],” she said. “One of the things for me has been that, as a physician, you need to support other physicians in your facility. When we first started, we were involved in peer review and then got involved in administrative aspects.”

Swenson was a founding member of the Seton Physician Hospital network, “which is the insurance product of Seton,” Swenson said. Swenson also chaired the Medical Quality Improvement Committee, overseeing peer review at the hospital and with responsibility for safety. Following that, she became Secretary of the Medical Staff and has served as Chief of Staff for two years; her tenure ends in December. In January 2012, she will become President of Seton Healthcare Family (the entire network of hospitals), where she is currently Vice President.

“It’s interesting to watch Karen function as Chief of Staff,” said Frank Mazza, Vice President, Chief Patient Safety Officer, and Associate Chief Medical Officer at Seton Healthcare Family. “She is one of the few individuals I know who understands innately what leadership really is. It’s all about co-creation, building trust, and collaboration. Yet she also realizes that the buck stops with her and that part of her job is to assure accountability.

“Starting in January, Karen will take over as President of the Medical Staff, where she will oversee more than 2,800 physicians,” Mazza said. “She will be the first female to ever serve in that capacity at Seton. While I do not believe Seton’s physicians ever consciously intended to keep a woman out of that role, it’s still quite an accomplishment and a testament to her influence and capabilities that she has risen so far in representing a constituency that is so notoriously independent and determined in their thinking.”

The Chief of Staff runs the medical staff meetings. The staff is responsible for credentialing physicians and conducting peer review to ensure doctors adhere to the highest levels of care for the patient.

“We’ve been very involved at our facility making sure we provided evidence-based care for our patients,” Swenson said. “We looked at perinatal safety; we looked at trauma and obstetrical trauma and, although our numbers were below the national average, we wound up reducing them to zero. That’s been a demonstration project all over the world.”

In fact, Swenson participated at a roundtable in May organized around U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s visit to Seton Medical Center Austin. Sebelius aimed to learn more about the success of the hospital’s safety initiatives.

An energetic woman with a vibrant personality, Swenson strides through the hospital, from board room to the Labor and Delivery corridor, at a fast clip, calling each physician who passes her by name, often asking personally specific questions.

“Honestly, I was thinking about this recently; I still practice obstetrics and gynecology,” she said. “I’ve been doing obstetrics since 1981; that’s 30 years. It’s a very physically brutal practice. And I don’t think I could still be doing it if I weren’t fit. What we do is very physical—we’re up all night, we’re operating on people, we’re hunched over a lot, and I feel like I’m really lucky that I’ve been able to continue to practice and provide this excellent care. I don’t think I could do it if I hadn’t been exercising on a regular basis and have a commitment to that.”

Her commitment to exercise extends to her medical practice as she advocates exercise for her patients as well.

“There’s really good data that if you exercise on a regular basis when you’re pregnant, you have a lower incidence of gestational diabetes and that women who have gestational diabetes and exercise during pregnancy have better outcomes,” she said.

“There’s an OB/GYN [in Austin], Brad Price, who is a triathlete and is doing an ongoing study of pregnant women and fitness. He’s compared women who exercised throughout their pregnancy to women who were more sedentary; some of our patients participated [in the study]. I think his studies are going to show that women that exercise wind up having better labors and deliveries and maybe even a lower C-section rate.”

Dr. Stacy Jones, Medical Staff Secretary at Seton Medical Center Austin, said Swenson “has been a role model for me since I came to Austin 18 years ago. She has dedicated her career to women’s health issues and really is a wonderful physician, a great mom and a good friend. Being chief of the medical staff is a very big commitment and, while it is a volunteer position, you are elected by the entire medical staff. That is one big vote of confidence.

“It’s easy to take this sort of thing for granted now, but Karen and her partners did a truly remarkable thing for the time,” said Jones. “They came to Austin and built their own private practice, on their own terms, from the ground up. I so admire them for that. When Karen and I went to medical school, we were a minority. Now, more than half of all medical school graduates are women. It is very exciting to me to see so many young female physicians joining the medical staff. Karen is the first woman to be Chief of Staff, I’ll be the second, but we know for sure we won’t be the last!”

Numerous studies have shown the positive impact of exercise on stress and mental health. One of the most common complaints heard in doctors’ offices today is how stressful patients’ lives are, increasing demands on the “sandwich generation,” and, with the current economic situation, financial stress. While doctors routinely recommend exercise, the psychological benefits are sometimes overlooked by busy and distracted people.

“For me, exercise provides three things,” said Swenson. “First, it provides fitness and endurance and the ability to keep going. Second, it helps me psychologically manage. We’re under a lot of stress. We have to make decisions quickly. You don’t want to constantly feel like you’re going up and down; you want to raise your endorphins to a nice level, help maintain them, and that helps you react in a more modulated way. The last thing is, it helps me maintain friendships because I have a whole bunch of different people that I exercise with on a regular basis.

“I used to run with a friend and we had this tradition that we ran the half marathon together. Every time I ran around [Lady Bird Lake] as I got older, I thought ‘I’m going to be rowing someday because I know I can’t do this forever.’ I injured my knee years ago [in a skiing accident], so when I couldn’t run anymore, my husband gave me lessons to learn how to row.”

Swenson very intentionally set about lining up different workouts on different days with a variety of friends and colleagues.

“The woman that I ride bikes with on the weekend is a runner so, her one day a week that she doesn’t run, she’ll go biking with me. That’s helped me maintain relationships. Instead of going out to dinner and eating with people, you can meet and do exercise.

“I do Pilates twice a week; I have two different Pilates partners. I walk most days, Monday through Friday, unless I’m on call. I row once a week with Margaret, and then I’ll swim or bike on the weekends.” Swenson has a 25-yard lap pool in her back yard where she swims laps, often with her son. One of her Pilates partners is Dr. Ellen Blair Smith, a gynecologic oncologist. They work out together, they operate together, “we are our children’s god parents,” they will tell you simultaneously.

“I probably exercise 7 – 10 hours a week, if not more,” Swenson said. One wonders how she does it, with a full medical practice, surgery, the twenty-plus hours per month she spends as Chief of Staff, and then squeezing in time with her family.

“It’s really amazing to see how Karen works daily exercise into her very busy schedule,” said Dr. Stephanie Reich, who has been a partner in Swenson’s practice for 14 years. “She’s an excellent example of how you have to prioritize exercise in order to make it work in your life.”

“I have friends that will meet me over here [by the hospital] and walk with me while I’m on call,” Swenson said. “If you’re managing patients in labor and you need to be close to the hospital, you can just run around here.

“Sarah Janosik and I have been working out together since the ‘80’s. She is my Monday workout partner; we have lifted weights, walked, done yoga. We also started the first collaborative multidiscipline sexual medicine practice in Austin.”

Swenson’s spouse, Ken Cauthern, plays racquetball six days a week. Her daughter, Grace Katharine Myers, is a freshman at Ole Miss and her son, Winston Myers, is currently studying abroad in India. Her stepchildren are Bill Cauthern, daughter-in-law Sabrina Cauthern, grandchildren, Breana, 16, William, 5, and Ethan, 3 (she delivered Ethan). Chris is her other stepson; his wife is Danna, and their son is Samuel.

Disciplined and forward-looking, Swenson has clear fitness goals for the future: “Yoga,” she said. “I have tried Bikram and Hatha; I’m just trying to find a way of adding it into my life. I know flexibility is very important as we age and I will find a way. I also want to do spinning. Most of the things I do are outside because I love the outdoors.”

She and her rowing partner will be out on Lady Bird Lake later this month, participating in the Pumpkinhead Regatta—sans “collision buddies,” one hopes.


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