Christopher Dawes: A Trailblazer for Children’s Health

Chris Dawes

Dawes retires after 30 years of shaping health care for children and expectant mothers.

For release: September 07, 2018

Health care visionary and children’s hospital founder Lucile Salter Packard never actually met Christopher Dawes. Yet he would serve as the enduring champion of her vision for nearly 30 years.

The longtime CEO of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, Dawes retired at the end of August. He was honored Sept. 8 for his decades of leadership during a celebration at the hospital.

The hospital was inspired in part by the Stanford Convalescent Home for Children, where Packard, as a student at Stanford in the 1930s, volunteered in helping sick children as they recuperated outdoors in a camplike setting.

After Packard’s namesake hospital opened in 1991, it evolved to become a comprehensive, technology-rich enterprise with a national reputation and reach. Yet it never lost that warm and friendly feel, thanks largely to Dawes’ commitment to her establishing vision.

“Under his guiding hand we went from being a very lovely community hospital, nicely designed and family-friendly, to a world-class children’s hospital, drawing patients from across the United States and around the world,” said Susan Packard Orr, Lucile Packard’s daughter, who served on the hospital’s board of directors from 1993 to 2017.

Dawes, who had held senior positions in several other Bay Area medical centers, joined the hospital’s staff in 1989 and was named chief operating officer in 1996 and CEO in 2000.

In the early days, he said the hospital was much like a startup, with limited resources and faculty and no national profile. For instance, there were no pediatric surgeons on staff, and very few surgeries were done in young patients.

Easy-going and unflappable

To build the enterprise, he hired the best people he could find, and he listened to their advice. With his easy-going, unflappable style, he worked well with those at all levels, whether it was the parent of a child or a university official, and maintained close relationships with the medical staff, a key to the hospital’s success, said David Stevenson, MD, the Harold K. Faber Professor in Pediatrics and senior associate dean for maternal and child health at the School of Medicine.

“He was always listening to the doctors, asking the question, ‘What do we have to do to make this place great?’” Stevenson recalled.

The answer, Dawes found, was to build exceptional programs, known as centers of excellence, with a focus on six major areas of care: heart, cancer, brain and behavior, transplantation, pulmonary, and pregnancy and newborn care. The hospital was fortunate in that the David and Lucile Packard Foundation had decided to invest $300 million, including $200 million to be matched through community fundraising.

In the next five years, he would work with the School of Medicine to recruit more than 100 new faculty — the best in their fields — and help create the facilities needed to support them. By 2008, Packard opened new pediatric-dedicated operating rooms, a cancer center and a cardiovascular intensive care unit.

Dawes also recognized that the best children’s hospitals in the country not only provide great clinical care, but also support strong research to advance maternal and child health. He became a champion for the Maternal and Child Health Research Institute, which supports Stanford investigators conducting transdisciplinary research in the pre-clinical, clinical and basic sciences with the goal of improving the health of pregnant women and children. The institute has provided $52.3 million in grant funding to nearly 700 projects in its 10-year history, leading to numerous transformative discoveries.

Importance of academic programs

“Chris understands how important the academic programs are to a children’s hospital,” said Harvey Cohen, MD, PhD, the Deborah E. Addicott-John A. Kriewall and Betsy A. Haehl Family Professor in Pediatrics. “As such, he was able to get the faculty to identify themselves with the children’s hospital, in addition to their identities as faculty members. That was the attribute that allowed him to lead us from a reasonably good regional children’s hospital to one of the best children’s hospitals in the country.”

Over time, the demand for the hospital’s services outgrew the building’s roots. The hospital’s top-ranked specialties were attracting patients from near and far, but didn’t have the beds to accommodate them all. Moreover, health care was changing, and the hospital needed to change with it to be sustainable.

In 2012, under Dawes’ direction, the hospital began developing a network of clinics and hospital partnerships in the Bay Area and nationwide so patients could benefit from its high-level services without having to travel long distances. The network, Stanford Children’s Health, now has over 60 locations in Northern California and is the only health system in the region — and one of the few in the country — exclusively dedicated to pediatric and obstetric care.

Hospital officials also began planning for a major expansion on the Palo Alto campus. The hospital would more than double in size, adding 521,000 square feet, including a state-of-the-art surgery and imaging center and an additional 149 patient beds.

Jill Sullivan, vice president of strategic space planning, worked closely with Dawes for nearly a decade on the hospital’s expansion. “Chris was instrumental in ensuring that the design of the building upheld Lucile Packard’s founding vision to provide the best possible care to patients and families,” Sullivan said.

The expansion plan set aside 3.5 acres for gardens and green space and was designed to provide the kind of warm, healing, family-oriented environment Lucile Packard had envisioned. The hospital’s new Main building opened its doors to its first patients in December 2017.

Advocate for children’s health

Always mindful of the collective responsibility for children, Dawes also gained national stature for his advocacy on behalf of the nation’s youth. As chair of the board of the National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Related Institutions, Dawes frequented Washington, D.C., during the development of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010, working with colleagues to create guidelines for coverage of children.

He was formative in the creation of the Children’s Hospital Association, which joined two national children’s organizations into a major public policy and purchasing group for hospitals around the country.

“Chris has been transformational in the development of our children’s hospitals on a national level,” said Mark Wietecha, president and CEO of the association. “He was a founding trustee of CHA, a steady contributor to our national collaborative to improve pediatric care, and a tireless advocate and supporter of our work in Washington. Our children’s hospitals and our children are better for his many contributions.”

Dawes said he did not accomplish all of this alone, “I tend to listen to people’s ideas, observations and concerns,” he said. “I have always had the philosophy that I want to surround myself with people who are smarter and more experienced than I am.”

“Collectively we have created an organization that is admired nationally and a place that attracts great faculty and staff,” he added. “We have a terrific future.”

At the Sept. 8 event, the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health dedicated the front garden on the new campus in Dawes’ honor. The celebration was an opportunity for Dawes’ longtime peers and colleagues to wish him well.

Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, said his imprint will be felt many years to come.

“Chris’ impact on maternal and child health programs at Stanford has been and continues to be enormous,” Minor said. “Chris has been an inspiration for me and for all of us. His passion and dedication are infectious. The hospital he built will continue to thrive because of his vision.”

Written by: Ruthann Richter

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Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, with Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford at its center, is the Bay Area’s largest health care system exclusively dedicated to children and expectant mothers. Our network of care includes more than 65 locations across Northern California and more than 85 locations in the U.S. Western region. Along with Stanford Health Care and the Stanford School of Medicine, we are part of Stanford Medicine, an ecosystem harnessing the potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education, and clinical care to improve health outcomes around the world. We are a nonprofit organization committed to supporting the community through meaningful outreach programs and services and providing necessary medical care to families, regardless of their ability to pay. Discover more at