Callie Dobbins brings skills developed as a neonatal nurse to her role as the top administrator at Levine Children’s Hospital.
by Raymond C. Jones | photographs by Peter Taylor
It’s a safe bet that most everyone in Charlotte has heard of the Levines. Leon Levine, founder of the Family Dollar discount-store chain, established his namesake foundation in 1980 to give back to the community. And one of the highest-profile institutions to benefit from its philanthropy is Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital. Since opening its doors in 2007, the 234-bed hospital has provided lifesaving care to more than 130,000 patients. For this reason, the hospital’s name — like the Levine name — has become a household word.
But if you ask 100 people to tell you who runs the hospital, chances are at least 99 of them will give you a blank stare. The top administrator’s name, in fact, is Callie Dobbins, and, despite her relative anonymity, as facility executive she has more impact on children’s health than pretty much anyone else in the city.
Dobbins is one of the few women to manage such a large and complex facility. Most hospital administrators are male, with business backgrounds and formal degrees in hospital administration. Dobbins spent most of her pre-administrative career as a nurse.
A North Carolina native, she was born in Asheville, grew up in Hickory and earned her first nursing credential at UNC Chapel Hill. She confesses she did not fit the stereotype of the 3-year-old child who gets an early jump on a nursing career by nurturing dolls and playgroup friends back to health with a toy medical kit. Nonetheless, she has always enjoyed being around children and was drawn to pediatrics when she began her formal training.
Dobbins, a neonatal specialist, has demonstrated a passion for saving premature babies since taking her first nursing job at Atrium Health some 20 years ago. She ultimately became manager of the neonatal intensive care unit at Levine Children’s Hospital and moved from there to the top administrative position in 2014.
Justifiably proud of her clinical background, she still introduces herself to patients, families and visitors as a nurse. They may only discover the true scope of her responsibilities if it later comes up by chance. “To the extent I have any ‘street cred’ with families and staff,” she says, “it’s not because of my title. It’s because people know I understand the science behind our treatments and the intricacies of how things work.”
“To the extent I have any ‘street cred’ with families and staff, it’s not because of my title. It’s because people know I understand the science behind our treatments and the intricacies of how things work.”
Clearly there are a lot of “intricacies” involved in overseeing such a broad array of critical services. Since Levine Children’s Hospital opened as a freestanding facility, NICU services have grown far more sophisticated. The same is true for cancer, cardiac and trauma care, organ transplants, and other key services. For example, the hospital recently announced the completion of its 100th pediatric heart transplant.
“The vision that drove the Levines was keeping people with serious medical conditions off of airplanes,” Dobbins says. “The Levines understood the stress that occurs when a child is seriously ill. They wanted local families to focus 100% on treatment and zero percent on travel and logistics.”
Dobbins is proud of the growth that has allowed Levine Children’s Hospital to match the services offered by nationally recognized counterparts. “People at those facilities scratch their heads when they see what we’ve done here in just 14 years,” she says. “It took some of these other children’s hospitals a hundred years or more to build up to their current capabilities.”
Indeed, Levine Children’s Hospital has attracted patients from 48 states and a dozen foreign countries, including Africa, Asia, Australia and even tiny Tonga.
Asked to name “the best thing” about her job, Dobbins gives a three-part answer.
“I love seeing our people start new programs from scratch. I enjoy mentoring clinical staff and helping them to be more creative. And I love seeing children with really serious problems get good results.
“We put kids on soccer teams who might never have walked again. We put kids in classrooms who might never have gone back to school. We enable kids with near-fatal conditions to return to their families and flourish as productive citizens. Our work has impact for generations to come.”
Dobbins emphasizes, nonetheless, that some of her very best memories stem from the years she spent working the floor as a NICU nurse.
“When a newborn’s life is hanging by a thread,” she says, “their families not only need your technical expertise but a huge amount of emotional support as well. You become part of the family’s fabric.
“I still get Christmas cards, for example, from families I worked with years ago, and I’ve even gotten Christmas cards from former preemies who are now in college. If you can’t get motivated by that, you need to go home!” SP