By Karen Spataro
Long before the ball drops in Time’s Square this New Year’s Eve, another countdown has begun: The number of days left for parents to find a babysitter for one of the most in-demand nights of the year.
If you’re lucky enough to book a responsible, qualified sitter, you just might have Patricia Keener, MD, to thank for it.
Keener, a 1968 graduate of Indiana University School of Medicine and professor emerita, is the founder of Safe Sitter®, a national program that teaches young teens the skills they need to babysit, watch younger siblings and even stay home alone. Tens of thousands of would-be sitters take the course each year, learning much-needed skills such as how to clear an obstructed airway, manage behavior problems, change a diaper, care for an injury, and handle the business-side of babysitting.
The program was born nearly four decades ago out of a child care tragedy.
One morning in 1980, Keener’s pager started beeping as she and a colleague from the nursing team walked into Community Hospital in Indianapolis. An 18-month-old girl was en route to the emergency room. Keener – the head of nurseries and pediatrics at Community – was being summoned to help.
But hers was not the only pager buzzing. The nurse was simultaneously alerted to call home. The little girl being rushed to the hospital was her own.
“Her child choked while eating breakfast,” Keener recalled. “The adult sitter didn’t know how to handle this threat to life. By the time the ambulance arrived, the toddler was beyond help. If the person caring for her had known how to relieve an obstructed airway, the child would have lived.”
Keener resolved to do something about it. Safe Sitter® emerged.
“All of us would say how tragic that is,” said Richard L. Schreiner, MD, who retired as chair of pediatrics at IU School of Medicine and Chief Medical Officer at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. “Some of us would say we should do something about it, but how many of us would actually do it, not just in our community or our city or our state, but do it all over the world, and do it in a sustainable way?”
At first, Safe Sitter® was limited to the Indianapolis area, but the wives of medical residents who had been trained as Safe Sitter® instructors wanted to take the program with them as their husbands joined practices in other cities and states. Outposts sprung up. Keener made a presentation at the American Academy of Pediatrics, attracting the attention of pediatricians elsewhere. Then came a New York Times article and appearances on the Today show and Good Morning America.
“The thing about Safe Sitter® is it grew whether or not I was promoting it,” she said.
Today, the program is taught by almost 900 registered providers across the country. So this holiday season, as we raise a glass to the New Year, let’s also toast Keener for helping keep countless children safe while mom and dad are away.
“She’s in the top 1/100th of 1 percent of people who have made a difference in the quality of life and quality of healthcare for children,” Schreiner said.
For more information about hiring a qualified, responsible babysitter this holiday season, check out the Safe Sitter® parenting blog at https://safesitter.org/parenting-tips/.