Fritz Engstrom

Fritz Engstrom practiced psychiatry at the Brattleboro Retreat from 1998 to 2018.

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I had the unique privilege when I was the CEO and president of the Brattleboro Retreat from 2006-2016 of working closely with Dr. Fritz Engstrom in his role as chief medical officer. It is rare in one’s working life to have the opportunity to partner as an executive leader with an individual with the range of personal and professional abilities that Dr. Engstrom brought to his work at the Retreat.

When he became ill with an incurable illness, he called me and we began a journey together of making time to talk about our work experience together. It was a poignant and precious time where, as older colleagues, we had the opportunity to slowly say goodbye.

On one special evening along that journey, I invited the former members of the Executive Team that had worked together with Dr. Engstrom to my home. Everyone came virtually or in person, and we spent time telling him how much he had meant to each of us and to the community of Brattleboro and beyond.

When I think of Dr. Engstrom now, I smile and think of his infectious sense of humor, his ear for a story, his teaching seminars about all that is relevant in how psychiatry is portrayed in the movies, his compassion for excellence in patient care and his enduring friendships with others. It takes courage to be so authentic, to continuously seek out complex solutions to difficult predicaments in organizations and to provide the support to so many points of clinical need to patients in great need within the profession of psychiatry.

Dr. Engstrom demonstrated both gravitas and courage in his role as chief medical officer at the Brattleboro Retreat. On important moments he spoke in Montpelier at the Statehouse on controversial public policy debates on mental illness, bringing the viewpoints of psychiatric professionals to the discussion. Perhaps most importantly he provided a necessary holding environment for patients and employees. This aspect of his leadership is often underappreciated in an age in health care where treatment is driven by complex formulas defined by pay for performance reimbursement algorithms.

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In psychiatric and addiction medicine our patients present with a multiplicity of symptoms driven by the interaction of biology, genetics, social history and trauma that cannot easily be conceptualized and constrained by formulaic reimbursement methodologies. Dr. Engstrom understood this in his soul and knew that patients could not be restored to health without his support, caring and focus on creating a safe environment for the employees to also grow and develop so that their voices could be heard as partners in the treatment of patients.

In the decade that I worked with Fritz as a partner in the management and leadership of the Retreat, his leadership was absolutely critical and essential to our growth and stability. We all welcomed his commitment to being a leader who was both passionate and intelligent about the job he had to accomplish as well as focused in providing strong and pragmatic leadership and a sound clinical focus within the organization. Knowing that physicians are critical leaders in promoting optimum teamwork, his support of and teaching in the Leaders Developing Leaders program we developed for our physicians and management team supported his efforts in recruiting over 21 physicians to the Retreat during his years as chief medical officer.

Since the moment that Fritz faced his last great challenge with his health, we made sure that we created special times to talk to each other including one late fall afternoon when we spent hours together in his back yard, offering each other support and humor, especially regaling in his favorite Ole and Lena jokes. I kept thinking how unique it was to have this time together, a chance to be with a valued colleague who had become a dear friend, who now offered both of us a view into an unknown existential moment that we will all face in our future.

We laughed, we cried, we reminisced, and we thanked our lucky stars that we had lived in such special times ... together.

Dr. Rob Simpson was chief executive officer of the Brattleboro Retreat from 2006 to 2016.