By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
The bright red tie says a lot about the man wearing it. Decorated with images of children, it was a gift to Dr. William Engle from a colleague with the American Academy of Pediatrics. And it’s at least 20 years old.
“I didn’t know if I was supposed to wear a tie,” the unassuming physician said before an interview for this story.
Imagine that – a revered neonatologist with too many accolades to count wondering if he should wear a tie to the office when he is days away from retiring after nearly four decades with Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.
That’s Bill Engle – brilliant, hard-working, humble, compassionate and kind. These are just some of the adjectives attached to a man who would rather talk about his colleagues, his patients, his family and his faith than himself.
After a career that demanded long hours and included no shortage of heartbreak, Dr. Engle prefers to focus on the joy he experienced while serving others, the connections he made with patients and parents, and the family he found at Riley.
The Purdue University grad thought at first he wanted to study veterinary medicine, but hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Riley families are glad he switched to pediatric medicine, then neonatology.
He was a senior med student in the IU School of Medicine in the late 1970s, training at one point in the Riley NICU alongside the man who would become one of his mentors – Dr. Jim Lemons, who at 76 is semi-retired but still sees babies in the NICU.
“A TRUE SERVANT LEADER”
“Jim Lemons’ compassion with babies and families showed me a model that was really coming from the strength of a Christian background,” said Dr. Engle, who plans to remain active in his church and in his work with Mission Haiti Medical in retirement. “He really modeled that in terms of giving of himself.”
For his part, Dr. Lemons describes his former student as a “superb clinician and a master teacher,” a pioneer in the field of neonatology and someone who is revered in the Riley NICU by families, staff, students and fellows.
“I learned about Bill’s heart and soul in medicine,” Dr. Lemons said during a virtual retirement celebration for Dr. Engle. “You were always there. I don’t ever remember asking you to do something that you even hesitated for a moment. You demonstrated the best for all of us as a true servant leader.”
A graduate of IUSM in 1979, Dr. Engle did his pediatric residency at Riley from 1979-82, becoming chief resident, then completed a neonatology fellowship from 1982-84. He met his wife-to-be, Katrina, in the Riley NICU, where she worked as a nurse.
He likes to tell the story of the day he found himself as a second-year fellow in an elevator in the old Phase II of Riley with Dr. Morris Green, then physician-in-chief. Dr. Green is considered the father of family-centered care, a revolutionary concept when it started at Riley in 1971.
“He asked what I planned to do at the end of fellowship, and I told him I was thinking about asking if I could complete a third year of fellowship to do some research. Then he asked if I wanted a job,” Dr. Engle recalled with a chuckle.
“I would really love that,” was the young doctor’s stunned response.
There might have been more to the interview process than that, but that’s how Dr. Engle remembers the conversation that led to his life’s work at Riley.
“Jim Lemons and Rich Schreiner were the leaders in the neonatology division. I got to start at the end of my fellowship doing some clinical direction. It was a blessing, that’s for sure.”
CO-FOUNDER OF ECMO PROGRAM
He wasn’t the only one who was blessed. Talk to his colleagues, and they’ll tell you Bill Engle has been their north star of sorts – guiding them with his positive demeanor and commitment to the care of babies.
“I first met Bill during his early associate professor years when I was a resident rotating through the Riley NICU,” said Dr. Laura Haneline, professor of pediatrics and division chief of neonatal-perinatal medicine.
As a fellow Boilermaker, she said she admired his diehard allegiance to Purdue amid a sea of IU red. But it was much more than that.
“Over the past 37 years, Bill has made numerous contributions to the field of neonatology,” she said during a Zoom retirement party. “It would be impossible for me to summarize his achievements in the next 10 to 15 minutes.”
She tries, though, mentioning several key leadership positions:
Co-founder and medical director, Riley ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) program, 1985-2013
Director, Neonatal Transport Program, 1988-1998
Director, Neonatal Outreach Education Program, 1988-1992
Director, Neonatal Nurse Practitioner Program, 1989-1998
Medical Director, Wishard Special Care Nursery, 1991-1994
Medical Director, Riley NICU, 1994-2014
Director of Clinical Affairs, 2007-2018
Co-director for Quality Improvement, Division of Neonatology, 2018-2021
President, Indiana Neonatal Society
President, Indiana Chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics
The list goes on and on. Honors include the Edwin L. Gresham Award, Glenn W. Irwin Jr. Award, Excellence in Service Recognition as editor of NeoReviewsPlus, Mission Haiti Medical Recognition Award, and he’s a seven-time winner of the Red Shoes Award for outstanding accomplishments and contributions to family-centered care at Riley.
His leadership in so many areas is a “testament to his unmatched work ethic and drive for clinical excellence through program development,” Dr. Haneline said.
“Bill has had an incredible impact on the field of neonatology as a master clinician, program leader, extraordinary educator, role model and mentor.”
Many consider Dr. Engle’s work with longtime pediatric surgeon Dr. Karen West and nurse practitioner Susan Gunn to develop the ECMO program his crowning achievement in a career filled with achievement.
“Over 28 years, Bill and Karen built a state-of-the-art ECMO program with national distinction,” Dr. Haneline said. “They assisted in expanding this lifesaving technology to older pediatric and cardiac patients at Riley. Without their foundational work, the Riley ECMO program would not be what it is today.”
Dr. Engle tries to deflect attention from himself in a conversation about ECMO, calling it “a massive team effort” and paying tribute to past and current ECMO clinical coordinators, including the late Jim Hart and current manager Gail Hocutt.
But Dr. David Boyle, who joined the NICU team in 1989, recalled one evening in particular when he witnessed the dedication of Dr. Engle.
“I worked with you early on when a baby needed to go on ECMO,” Dr. Boyle said to his longtime colleague. “I had no idea what I was doing, and I picked up the phone. In true Bill Engle fashion, you came in and stood next to me while we put that baby on ECMO. To me that meant everything. For 30 years of being my mentor and colleague and friend, thank you.”
Dr. West, professor emeritus of the Division of Pediatric Surgery, met Dr. Engle when both were still in training. They would go on to work many long days and nights together.
“As a NICU fellow and a peds surgery fellow, we spent a lot of time together taking care of children,” she said. “It was a different world then. As fellows, we rarely left the hospital. We learned so much from each other, particularly with the ECMO program.”
What struck her was how concerned he was not just for each baby but for the entire family.
“We have shared some really wonderful patients together, and some still keep in touch,” she said. “It’s what medicine should be about.”
“A KIND AND GENTLE MAN”
Dr. Engle knew that better than most. In his conversations with families, he said he tried to be a listener first and understand what their knowledge base was and where they were emotionally.
“Being a physician, 50 percent of what we do is education. My hope is that I was able to read people correctly and compassionately and provide them with information they could use to help them understand the predicament their baby was in and the possibilities for recovery.”
Again, he credits Dr. Lemons with modeling that behavior, but he also saw some of those same attributes in his core group of colleagues, especially in those early years.
Dr. Schreiner, retired neonatologist and physician-in-chief at Riley, could talk a long time about the man he hired back in the 1980s (after that fateful meeting with Dr. Green in the elevator), but the most important thing to know about Dr. Engle is that he is a “kind and gentle” man,” Dr. Schreiner said.
“Everything he did was with humility. He never tried to bring attention to himself. If everyone were like Bill Engle, the world would be perfect,” Dr. Schreiner added, with no apologies.
“He’s accomplished so much, and he does it with grace and is always willing to do more.”
When he was chairman of the department, Dr. Schreiner asked his faculty to forward notes that families had sent to them. He has kept a few of those notes in his voluminous files and pulls out one of many that Dr. Engle received:
“Thank you for saving our son’s life. Thank you for the peace and calm you brought to me in those first days. Your demeanor and presence consistently gave me confidence. You were not just a man of science and medicine but of deep compassion and conviction. God has shown his love for us so much through you.”
Notes came in from medical students, too, describing Dr. Engle as “professional,” “kind,” “respectful,” “knowledgeable,” “gentle,” “a role model.” One even wrote, “I want to be like you when I grow up.”
Because of that legacy, Dr. Schreiner said, he is confident there are more young doctors coming up behind Dr. Engle who will model those traits.
“When you work with people like Bill, you get the best of yourself.”
FAMILY FEELING IS REAL
For the 68-year-old soon-to-be retiree, the family he’s been a part of at Riley is why he stayed all these years.
“I get a little mushy here,” he confessed. “I’ve been blessed throughout my career, after meeting my wife and becoming a Christian and meeting all these folks here, I just felt I had a whole family to collaborate with and get to know. I don’t know if you can clearly explain how heartening that is when you can make an impact,” he said.
“I learned from Jim and Rich how to take care of babies and help them survive and help their families cope, and then to see them later at picnics … it’s overwhelming.”
Dr. Engle leaves just before Riley’s new Mother-Baby Tower opens this fall. He is philosophical about the timing.
“There’s a time for everything and a time for others to shine,” he said. “In planning a new space with the young and mid-level faculty and staff, it’s a great opportunity to see a new program blossom. I have complete trust in my colleagues. I have no doubt it will be phenomenal.”
After a career that often infringed on family time, he is looking forward to not having any work obligations. Besides his volunteer activities with his church and his commitment to a hospital he helps support in Haiti, he and his wife plan to travel and continue their quest to see as many of the national parks as they can. They also look forward to spending more time with their three children and grandchildren.
To everyone at Riley, he says thank you, and shares a final piece of advice. Appreciate what you have.
“All those folks, the nursing staff, respiratory care staff, pharmacy staff, dietary staff, music therapy, social workers and all the other support people, make up a community of caring for babies. Please cherish that because those groups of people make the whole much better than one individual.”
In the retiring physician’s honor, a Riley wagon has been put into commission with his name on the back, and a neonatal emeritus lectureship will be started in his name.
That announcement took Dr. Engle by surprise.
“The wagon is such an important gift for families. It’s hard to say how much it means without me starting to cry.”
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com