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Health Care Is Personal: In Memory of Karen

By Clive Riddle

Just a few months into my first administrative position at a hospital in 1981, just a year out of college, I remember feeling pleased with myself as I edited the Radiation Therapy Center feasibility study I had just spent countless hours and days preparing. It was a thick report full of projections, tables, charts, and narrative. Then in the background, I could year the sobbing outside my office.

My office had been converted from an admissions room, and was situated next to a quiet area for families, off the main lobby. I had never really paid attention my surroundings. I was too into my new job. But the sobbing persisted, and at some point I had to leave my office for a meeting. As I rounded the corner I spied the family, grieving for a loved one that had just passed away upstairs.

In the years to come, as I progressed in my career, becoming CEO of a regional provider owned health plan, I was typically far removed from the actual rendering of health care. Instead I was immersed in the business of it: budgets, monthly reports, department head meetings, actuarial projections, marketing campaigns, contract negotiations, board meetings, personnel issues.

Now and then, but never often enough, I tried to remind myself of that day outside my hospital office, so early in my career, when I first learned that health care is personal, and can not so lightly treated as just another business or commodity.

During my more than dozen years running that health plan, I had the great pleasure of working every day with Karen (Hutcheson) Speziale. She was the Chief Operating Officer of the plan, and she made the plan run, and run well. Karen passed away this past week, after a six and a half year battle with cancer. Karen should have been with us for at least a couple of more decades.

I remember sitting in my health plan office with Karen and our Medical Director, making decisions on proposed benefit and coinsurance levels for the coming plan year. We set a higher coinsurance level and benefit limitation for Total Parenteral Nutrition (TPN), which was at the time increasingly being used in the treatment of Crohn’s Disease. Years later, one of my children would be diagnosed with Crohn’s. We also set various new benefit parameters for several different prescription and treatment options for cancer.

Health care is personal.

After I left that health plan to start MCOL, Karen went on to take a position with Kaiser Permanente, developing and then managing their expansion in our market. Kaiser is now the dominant health plan in our area. Later, Karen moved away to San Diego, and really flourished there.

Karen volunteered significant time in elementary school classrooms. She became the advisor for the local chapter of her Sorority at the university. She spent countless hours on other civic activities. Several of her former department heads from our old health plan remained the closest of friends with her, taking really cool vacations together, and staying in constant touch. She also kept very close ties with her family. When Karen’s illness required that she fully retire from her job, she continued all her contributions to the community.

I very recently took a quick trip to visit with Karen. She had just returned from a visit to the Kindergarten class where she helped the kids learn to read. They had put on a program just for her. On the wall in her office was a plaque recently given to her by her Sorority as the national “Alumna of the Year.” The perpetual annual award will now bear her name.

Karen’s investment in community time should serve as a wake up  call to all of us working on the business side of health care, to put and keep some balance in our lives, as Karen did.

Karen shared with me how recently at the hospital she had an hour long conversation with a nurse on what was wrong with health care. Karen laughed about it, but its hard to argue that there is something significant that needs to be done with health care. We can start by remembering how personal it is.

Anyone reading this who knew Karen Speziale might be interested to know that donations in her memory can be made to San Diego Hospice at

Reader Comments (1)

I, too, worked very closely with Karen the past two and half years. As VP of Finance for our sorority, Karen was my direct advisor and we grew to be extremely close. I unfortunately was abroad on an exchange program in Australia from February until June and returned home one week too late. I am so grateful to have had Karen in my life as she has been the perfect role model, mentor, and friend. Thank you for sharing your story about Karen... I definitely can identify with the wonderful experiences, you too, shared with Karen.

August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMandy Larochelle

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