A hero in scrubs, PICU nurse leaves a legacy of love

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09/09/2021

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The Riley PICU team lifts up one of their own, Lisa Roberts, who continued to give compassionate care even as she fought for her own life.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

They came in their beachy attire, their Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts, with smiles on their faces masking tears in their eyes.

They came to say goodbye, I love you, thank you.

They came to lift up Lisa Fouse Roberts, beloved friend and co-worker, as she eased her way out of this world on hospice after a five-year battle with incurable, metastatic breast cancer.

About two dozen people, most representing the pediatric intensive care unit at Riley Hospital for Children, surprised Lisa at her home on the last Sunday in August. The PICU squad brought signs, balloons and memories to share.

If you stretched the sign boards out, they spelled “Lisa we love you to the beach and back.” The beach theme was a tribute to Lisa’s favorite place in the world. The only thing that might have made it better would have been margaritas for all. (Adults, that is.)

They took turns sharing memories, funny stories and lessons they learned from their friend, colleague, mentor and role model. All of it captured on a recording to be savored by Lisa’s family in the days to come.

Charge nurse Jane Watson even did a little singing, karaoke-style, to the tune of “American Pie,” taking some creative licensing with the lyrics.

“I can’t carry a tune, and to do this in front of all these people, well I wouldn’t do it for anyone else,” Watson said.

That’s how much Lisa was loved.

“I’M SO GRATEFUL OUR LIVES CROSSED PATHS”

Lisa Roberts worked in Riley’s PICU for nearly 20 years. She was the nurse every young nurse wanted to be, the nurse every parent wanted for their child.

She was the total package. Wise, experienced, calm, compassionate. She often knew what a patient or parent needed before they knew it themselves.

Tiffany Johnson was one of those parents. Her daughter, Ayana, was one of Lisa’s patients 18 years ago. Ayana was hospitalized at Riley for nearly a year after her birth.

“As long as Lisa was there, I didn’t have anything to worry about,” Johnson said. “She was everything to my daughter. When I was not there, she was the mommy. She kept me sane during that very tumultuous time.”

Lisa always had an encouraging word and made sure Johnson understood everything the doctors said about her little girl, who just celebrated her 19th birthday.

“I’m so grateful our lives crossed paths.”

DIGNITY AND GRACE

Dr. Veda Ackerman, who retired from Riley a year ago, worked with Lisa for more years than she can remember. But she’ll never forget the impact she had.

“Lisa has always been an outstanding nurse and an outstanding mentor to young nurses, but when she was diagnosed several years ago, she just never let it stop her. She came to work and did an amazing job with the patients, and I think she demonstrated so well to a younger generation the whole process of commitment and doing what’s right for yourself.”

By that, Dr. Ackerman means Lisa chose her own path in her five-year journey with cancer. Told she could live anywhere from three months to 10 years, she chose not to have some of the more aggressive treatment that would have left her unable to work, unable to care for her two kids.

“I think her legacy will be showing this younger generation that it is appropriate and good to plan your own destiny,” Dr. Ackerman said. “She is demonstrating that you can have death with dignity and grace, and I think she practiced that with our patients who couldn’t survive.”

“SO MANY LAYERS TO LISA”

Her cancer journey has been marked by courage, according to Watson and other nursing colleagues.

“There are so many layers to Lisa,” said Watson, describing her friend as “a quiet, private, humble person who just does her job.”

“When she got diagnosed and they gave her three months to 10 years, I don’t know what you do with that. But she just showed up and lived her life.”

In fact, many of the younger nurses she worked with didn’t even know she was sick. Up until July, she was still working full time, giving her all to patients and families as if everything was normal in her own life.

“Her courage has been a testament to so many people,” Watson said. “Here she was giving excellent, compassionate, bedside care and her own life was falling apart. She didn’t know how long she was going to live, but she still showed up. She was never the victim.”

Working in the PICU is not for the faint of heart. Patients are critically ill or injured, and they often can’t speak for themselves. And while the meds and the machines are crucial, so too are the little things that Lisa practiced. Whether that was flossing a child’s teeth, brushing their hair or bringing them an extra blanket, it was all part of the care she provided.

“From a charge nurse perspective, I just loved it when I saw her name on the roster because I knew she had things under control,” Watson said. “The longer I do this, the harder it weighs on my heart what these parents have to go through and what these kids have to go through, but it always brought me comfort on those days when our gift to them in all the darkness and all the stress was Lisa.”

Not only a gift to her patients, Lisa was a mentor and a friend and a shining example of how to be a good nurse and a good human.

She and her former husband, Jack, were foster parents for years and adopted two of those foster children several years ago.

“It takes a lot to open your heart to work in the PICU,” Watson said, “but to open it up beyond that to bring these kids into your home and you have no idea what you’re signing up for … I feel like I have a big heart, but it’s not that big.”

FINDING HER PURPOSE

Lisa was a constant source of encouragement for her nursing colleagues, especially when they have doubted themselves.

Kelsi Lawless remembers a day a few years ago when she struggled to come up with the right words to tell a dying teenage cancer patient what the road ahead might look like. Lisa was outside the door and heard what she said.

That evening, when Lawless began to question privately whether she had what it took to be a PICU nurse, Lisa posted a comment on the unit’s private Facebook page, saying how impressed she was with the grace the team showed that day and how she hoped it would be the same for her when her time came.

It was just what Lawless needed to hear in that moment.

“In the PICU, we struggle with anxiety, depression and PTSD from what we see, but the biggest thing she taught me is how you can take your own experience and set it aside and continue to make an impact on the world despite the heaviness of your own journey,” Lawless said.

Lisa was also a straight shooter, something the PICU team appreciates. Sugarcoating situations can leave everyone blindsided when the worst happens, Lawless said.

“She has been so important to younger nurses, showing us how to give patients respect, dignity and a voice in their care, depending on their age. She made me feel that my purpose in life is to be here, and I want her to know that. It’s huge to help somebody figure out their purpose.”

That’s why she wanted to be sure Lisa knew how much she has meant to so many.

“We live day to day, and we don’t tell people how much they impact us. I’m glad we were able to do that for her.”

“AN AMAZING LEGACY”

The nurses mentored by Lisa are fortunate, Dr. Ackerman agreed. They are strong because she taught them how to be strong.

“She’s been so influential in so many young lives,” the retired critical care physician said. “She leaves an amazing legacy of outstanding peds ICU nursing.”

And death is part of the PICU.

“We have a lot of people who can’t talk about it easily and certainly would have a hard time talking about their own death,” Dr. Ackerman said. “That shows you what kind of nurse she was. She could talk about anything and help families on that journey. It’s pretty amazing the example she set for those families who never knew what she was dealing with personally.”

When it came time to surrender to the illness that robbed her of her ability to work after living with her diagnosis for five years, Lisa decided home was where she wanted to be.

That decision alone took a wealth of courage, Watson said.

To honor that courage, that resolve and that commitment to live her best life to the end, her PICU family gathered around her on Aug. 29 to hold her in the warmth of their love.

They sang and danced. They laughed and cried. They prayed for their friend, who greeted their smiles and tears with her own.

If they could have gotten her to a beach with a margarita in hand, that’s what they would have done. But feeling the love on that day surely reminded Lisa of the sun on her face and an ocean breeze at her back.

“Your legacy will remain in the halls of the Riley PICU,” Watson told her friend. “You have made us all better people.”

Lisa passed away at home Tuesday night with her family by her side. She died as she lived, with grace and dignity, with love in her heart.

Photos by A.R. Davis Photography