Subscribe for 33¢ / day

Karen Keltner tells the story of health care in Northwest Indiana.

She translates technologically advanced medical treatments into terms everyone can understand: how they improve the health of your family members and neighbors.

"If you want to meet a hero, talk to someone in health care," she said. "They're making a difference in your community, in your loved ones' lives."

Keltner is the regional marketing manager for Porter Healthcare System and LaPorte and Starke hospitals, tasked with promoting their medical services. That's not hard for her to do, given she's constantly impressed by the quality of the providers.

She began her career at a large public relations agency in Chicago, representing clients in the fashion and retail industries.

"It was a really heady time, super-duper exciting. There was lots of growth in the retail community, up and down Michigan Avenue: fashion shows, trunk shows," she said. "I was one of the leads on opening Bloomingdale's in Chicago."

Later, her division got the chance to pitch a PR campaign for a new children's hospital in the city — and won the account.

Diving into health care

That foray into health care opened up new doors. She went on to become the community relations director for an Indiana hospital system. After that system consolidated, she worked for a health care contracting company in Valparaiso, where she and her family decided to settle down.

Before she knew it, her job was eliminated.

"It was surreal: OK, what do I do? We had just moved and built this new house," she said. "That night, a good friend who owned his own company asked if I could do a marketing plan for him. It was one of those aha moments in your life."

She had just had her second child, so the opportunity to freelance and work from home appealed to her. She did it for the next 10 years.

"I never in a million years thought I wouldn't be driving to an office every day," she said. "I became ridiculous and over the top. I started an art class for 4- and 5-year-old boys. I was in my kids' school about every week. I designed the school newsletter, chaired almost every event."

Opportunity too good to pass up

But with the oldest of her kids about to graduate high school, she needed a more consistent income to help pay for their college. That's when she learned about the opening at Porter Health Care System. The opportunity to promote health care in her own community was too good to pass up.

She oversaw PR as Porter built a new hospital in 2012 just outside Valparaiso. Last year, she started doing marketing for LaPorte and Starke hospitals after they were bought by Porter's parent company.

She was tasked with rebranding the two hospitals, which previously were under the banner of Indiana University Health. She met individually with department leaders at the two facilities, learning what made each place unique. "By meeting one on one, you get to know their passion, their dedication, their stories, why they're doing what they're doing," she said.

Influenced by her past job experience, she says her department runs "very much like an agency." She tries to stay up on the latest trends in marketing and advertising. She understands the importance of measuring the rate of return of her campaigns.

"She's just on top of it. I don't know how else to describe it," said Chris Mahlmann, CEO of Ideas in Motion Media, who works with Keltner on advertising and stories for his online publications including ValpoLife. "No matter what we go to her with, she nails it. She knows the answer. She knows it quick. She's like a machine."

The human touch

Her favorite part of the job has been putting human faces on health care.

"Other than organ transplants and research, we really do the same testing, diagnostics and procedures as the large Chicago hospitals, yet the staff, because they're more local, tend to provide a level of compassion and empathy that is harder for the larger hospitals to provide," said Keltner's boss, Kelly Credit, the organization's regional director for planning and marketing. "Karen has the ability to creatively portray that."

There's the grandmother who got a knee replacement and can now play with her grandkids. There's the man in his early 50s who had a heart attack and is now warning others about the symptoms. There's the breast cancer survivor who skipped her mammograms and now wants to make sure others don't.

"By telling those stories, you know you are making a difference," Keltner said. "You want your neighbors and the people you love to live happier, healthier and at a higher quality of life."


Health reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.