A Look at a Leader: Caitlin Church
Born with a cleft lip and palate, Church, who currently works as the coordinator of the Cleft & Craniofacial Anomalies Program at Riley, spent a lot of her childhood at Riley.
Growing up in Warsaw, Indiana, Caitlin Church had her sights set on a specific career: to be a physical therapist at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. Born with a cleft lip and palate, Church, who currently works as the coordinator of the Cleft & Craniofacial Anomalies Program at Riley, spent a lot of her childhood at Riley.
“My first surgery was at 4 months old, and I’ve had 16 surgeries total; my last one was at age 16,” recalls Church. “It’s common to have reconstruction well into your high school years, with the majority of the work done by the time the patient graduates high school.”
But Church developed such a strong relationship with the staff at Riley that she was in no hurry to say goodbye—and decided that Riley would be a wonderful place to work when she got older. “Riley was always my family; you form a special bond with your surgeons and craniofacial team,” she says.
So, Church chose to attend the University of Indianapolis to pursue physical therapy. During her sophomore year, however, she hit a crossroads. “I realized I was enjoying my humanities classes a lot more than my science classes, so I switched my major from biology to communications with a concentration in public relations, and a minor in religion,” says Church. “It was a hard choice because my identity had always been wrapped up in being a physical therapist, but I found a new love.”
After graduating in 2010, Church worked as a district executive at the local Boy Scouts of America office, where she built up her communication and management skills. She then became a marketing coordinator at a law firm, where she honed her skills further. Eventually, she went on to become director of operations at a landscaping company.
Though she was happy with her work, a friendly lunch with the former program coordinator for the Cleft & Craniofacial Anomalies program changed the course of her career. “She told me she was getting ready to retire and asked if I would apply for her position,” explains Church. “She was instrumental to the program for so many years—in fact, she was the one that my parents talked to when coordinating everything for me—so it was one of those circle-of-life things.”
Church applied for the position, and in November 2014, she started as the new coordinator for the program, which is one of the largest cleft and craniofacial programs in the country with about 2,000 patients in active treatment.
The role was a fit right away. Not only did Church bring her professional skills to the job, but she also brought her patient perspective, which makes her particularly sensitive to what the kids and their parents are going through. “It’s very emotional for me. Though I try not to take my work home, it’s not just a job for me—it’s incredibly personal,” says Church.
These days, Church has fully transitioned from patient to coordinator and she takes great pride in helping families understand their diagnoses and treatments, and in planning their clinic visits. “I work with a team of about 40 individuals, which includes physicians, therapists, and other healthcare specialists—and my role is to be the glue that holds everything together,” says Church. “In addition to making the clinic schedule, I coordinate our educational conferences, fundraising, and all other administrative functions related to the program.”
She also enjoys sharing her own story. “I’ve always been happy to talk about my cleft lip and palate so when people ask, I tell them: ‘That’s why I’m here. It’s a passion of mine to explain it to people,’” says Church. “It’s great to see parents’ eyes get big when I tell them I was a Riley kid too—and this is what it looks like nearly 30 years down the road. I hope that alleviates some fear, and helps them understand it will be okay.”
While Church can relate to that uncertainty, she credits her parents and her Riley team for helping her grow into the confident person that she is today. “My parents were instrumental in how I viewed my cleft lip and palate,” says Church. “From the get-go they said to me: ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. You just have to go to the doctor more often and have some surgeries.’”
Church also benefited from going to Riley’s Camp About Face when she was a child. “It is a weeklong summer camp for kids ages 8 to 18 with cleft or craniofacial anomalies,” explains Church. “You spend time together, swap stories and share advice, and realize you’re not the only one. It’s incredible to be around 30 other kids in the same situation.” Church attended the camp for 10 summers as a camper, and returned as a mentor when she was in college. Now, as part of her job, she helps coordinate the camp, and is determined to do what she can to make it as positive an experience for kids now as it was for her in her youth.
A saying that Church learned at camp continues to hold true for her: what makes people different makes them beautiful. “Having a cleft lip and palate has made me a stronger person and it’s given me a lot more empathy for others,” explains Church. “Yes, it’s life altering and a challenge but it’s made me who I am and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
-- By Rachel Rabkin Peachman