Saving Patients’ Lives

By Ann Gill (M.A., ’76)

Some individuals are driven by what they want to achieve; some find their passion in what they can do for others. Carole Lenz Hemmelgarn (B.A., ’86) has spent much of her professional life devoted to patient safety.

Carole Hemmelgarn
Carole Hemmelgarn

Growing up in Littleton, her father was adamant that no child of his would attend CU. After visiting our campus, CSU was the only school Carole applied to. Other Rams in the Lenz family include brothers Marty (B.A., ’90) and Jim (B.A., ’99), Jim’s wife Stacy (B.S., ’99), and Marty’s daughter Elle Dyekman (B.A., ’17). While at CSU, Carole “lived intramural sports,” participating in “as many as I could.” She also worked in Parmalee as an RA and sold advertising for the Collegian.

Following graduation, she did a short stint in radio sales at KCSJ in Pueblo then was hired at Pfizer, where she remains today. She started as a sales representative, then was promoted to regional account director working with federal accounts, including the Department of Defense.

She is, however, most widely known for her exceptional work in patient safety. Carole and Joe’s 9-year-old daughter Alyssa died due to a preventable medical error while hospitalized, which motivated Carole’s efforts to prevent others from experiencing a similar loss. In pursuit of this goal, she earned two M.S. degrees, one in patient safety and the other in health care ethics.

In addition to working for Pfizer, she serves as adjunct faculty member in graduate programs at the University of Illinois Chicago and Georgetown University. She has published three articles in the area of patient safety and is working on one defining harm in health care. Harm now is defined by medical mistake; she urges broadening the concept beyond physical harm to include emotional, financial, and familial harm, such as what the loss of a sibling can do to children.

Carole with brothers Joe and Marty
Carole with brothers Joe and Marty

Carole also works to move health care organizations beyond litigious mindsets; “if the main motivation is protecting itself, the organization will not learn from its mistakes.” Proof of the efficacy of her efforts to break down this barrier lies in the number of health care systems that now have communication and resolution programs. She serves on a number of patient advocate boards, including Children’s Colorado Hospital Quality Safety and Experience Committee, MedStar Institute for Quality and Safety, and UW Medicine’s Collaborative for Accountability and Improvement. In addition, she works to make individuals aware that they need to be advocates for their own safety.

September 17 is Patient Safety Day. In place of the large march to raise awareness of patient safety that had been planned for Washington, D.C., a smaller, appropriately distanced, one now is planned. Marching will be one representative from each of the 50 states; Carole will represent Colorado. These representatives also will meet with their state legislators to raise awareness about patient safety, and a health care conference will be held.

The driving force behind the extraordinary time and effort Carole Hemmelgarn commits to patient safety is her belief: “If I can save one life, hers was not in vain.”