As a young girl growing up in a big Irish Catholic family in Maryland, Margaret Sabin didn’t have a clue about what she wanted to be when she grew up. When she got a microscope for Christmas one year, she thought it was an odd gift. But then, she says, in college, “I majored in biology, so who knows?” Maybe her interest in health grew from that. She knew she sure didn’t like to exercise when it was forced upon her, but later, she became a fitness instructor.
Growing up, she says, children are often pressured into becoming what others think they should be, but she believes “you have to find out what you’re really good at.” Sabin says she never thought “I want to be a hospital administrator,” yet she is the president of Children’s Hospital Colorado, Colorado Springs. And for 10 years previously, she was president and chief executive officer of Penrose–St. Francis Health Services.
She was actually on the path to medical school when someone advised her to work in a hospital for a year before pursuing that career. The only job she could get at the time was in a hospital pharmacy. After a year, her mother—a chemist for Eli Lilly—said if she had to redo her own career, she’d go into hospital administration. “With nine children,” Sabin says, “that wasn’t possible for her.” But the seed was planted. Also, she adds, “My pharmacy work helped open a path to a residency in administration.”
The other life-changing experience that inspired her interest in fitness occurred when she was pregnant and experienced a blood clot. She decided to do everything she could to get and stay fit, becoming an exercise aficionado. “I was notoriously clumsy all my life,” Sabin says. “So I thought (working out) might make me more dainty. I was often told I didn’t know my right foot from my left.” As such, the thing she hated as a kid—“everything but riding horses was sheer agony”—became a passion. She became certified and ultimately taught fitness classes on the side. In graduate school, she even competed in long-distance swimming “and I went from worst to…well, more respectable.”
Even today, Sabin deals with the stress of life by running or swimming. “I do it by myself,” she says. “It’s renewal time. We all need that energy outlet and time to refresh. How many times do you think you don’t have the energy, but afterward you feel better? It’s the beauty of endorphins. Wish they could bottle them!”
Growing and improving seem to be her mantras, and she says one of the most rewarding parts of her career in the past decade has been seeing others excel. “A lot of my former no. 2s are now no. 1s elsewhere.”
As the former head of the huge Penrose–St. Francis system, she garnered Penrose Hospital national recognition, partly through embracing community partnerships. “Wow, did we grow,” she says. “I’m proud of everything we did.” This commitment to community partnerships is what brought her to Children’s Hospital. When she was offered the job as head of the hospital, she says, “It was just meant to be. It 100% aligns with the passion I have for helping kids know they can be strong for the world they are now facing. We’re not going to change the world fast enough, but we can show them how to cope with it, teaching resilience and grit.”
At Children’s Hospital, she has compounded its commitment to children. For example, if someone says they have to leave a meeting to get to their son’s football game, everyone endorses that. “That doesn’t happen everywhere,” she says. As the mother of four grown children, she knows how hard it is to juggle work and parenting. “It’s easier these days,” she says, “but there’s an even bigger societal issue.”
She says that, although we are “great rescuers,” we are not good at preventing the predictable, such as a pandemic. “As a society, we wait for bad things to happen and then react. But we need to prepare ourselves ahead of inevitable adversity. We’re not heroes [for dealing with it] when we could have prevented it.”
Another example is teen suicide. “We know it’s preventable,” she says. “The heroism is in setting up systems to make kids stronger to avert a tragic event.” She often says, “We line up ambulances at the bottom of the cliff…but do we build a fence at the top to keep people from falling off?”
She channels her energy into encouraging children and teens. Her message to them is this: “Pretend you never heard ‘you can’t do it,’ and just go for it. I’d like kids in Colorado Springs to know they can do anything. I want them to succeed, excel, and find joy in life.”