By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
She is described as the “heart and light of our NICU.”
“A gift and a treasure.” “Selfless, kind and compassionate.”
The words tumble out of friends and colleagues when asked what longtime nurse Deb Hutchison – “Hutch” to her friends – means to them.
After 45½ years spent caring for the tiniest babies at Riley Hospital for Children, Hutchison hung up her red scrub top for good last week, following a Sunday shift with a pitch-in lunch and hugs for all.
“She has always been the person who worked so hard to be sure a pitch-in was perfect, planning countless parties for holidays and special moments in our lives,” said RN Jennifer Stark.
“I love a party,” Hutchison said. “I love people.”
It had to feel a little strange not to plan this party, but Hutchison discovered being the guest of honor isn’t so bad. She swapped stories with fellow nurses, aides, physicians and emergency personnel, all there to thank her for being a friend, mentor and compassionate caregiver.
“In addition to tirelessly advocating for her patients and families, Deb is the person who kept us united and made everyone feel welcome and included,” Stark said.
“She was always, for me, a source of knowledge and an example of how to treat staff, families and all people. She unified us.”
When Stark joined the NICU team at Riley 20 years ago, her manager asked what she would value most in a preceptor, the person who would guide her through the first several months of her nursing career.
“Please just choose someone nice,” she said at the time.
“Why did I say that? I have no idea. I must say that my manager at the time, though, gave me the greatest gift. Deb didn’t really precept many people, but she assigned me to her. Since then, she has been there and cared for me through everything.”
Hutchison was just a young mom herself when she moved to Indianapolis – a city where she knew no one – to take a nursing job at Riley.
She was nervous, of course, but she found a second family there, even as her marriage ended barely a year later.
“I wasn’t sure why God put me here at first, but this place and these people carried me through,” she said. “I feel if we can share burdens and joys from our personal lives, we can be more supportive and forgiving in our professional lives.”
Over the years, she grew in her faith, her confidence and her role in the neonatal intensive care unit. She was a trusted colleague, confidante and caregiver – for patients, parents and peers.
Admittedly, she struggled with the idea of retiring. This job has given her so much, she said, more than anyone could know.
“I’ve been praying for two years that God would let me know when it was time and show me what he has for me next,” she said. “Each day, I would ask him to show me that I made even one difference in someone’s life, and some days it came at the last minute of my shift.”
During most of her time at Riley, Hutchison enjoyed the adrenaline rush of critical care like most intensive care nurses do, she said.
“My preferred babies were the micro preemies. The perfect scenario for me was to be the admitting nurse, build a support team of nurses and respiratory therapists and go all the way to discharge day. It rarely happened to perfection, but when it did, it was stellar care – best for the patient, family and team.”
There were preemies like Brianna Brooks, who was born at 24 weeks, weighing just over a pound. Hutchison recently got a chance to see that tiny baby all grown up now – two-plus decades later.
EVOLUTION OF CARE
Four decades of NICU nursing is bound to come with many changes, and Hutchison has seen her share. The biggest change for the long-term health of preemies was the development of surfactant and improved ventilation to support babies whose lungs were not fully developed, she said.
The switch from open modules to private rooms for babies has been a mixed blessing, she believes. It is quieter and less disruptive for babies and parents, but it doesn’t allow for as much interaction with other parents and team members.
Still, Hutchison found a way to support patients, parents and co-workers.
Sherrese White remembers.
“I remember starting out in the modules as a new nurse, and the NICU is such a hard place to start out as a baby nurse, but Deb was one of those nurses that welcomed and encouraged me,” White said.
“She's always been a wonderful nurse who truly cares for her patients, and it’s because of her and other nurses like her that I am still here today doing what I was meant to do.”
For Emily Crandall, Hutchison was a welcoming presence from her first day as a nurse on the unit.
“There were free hugs, doughnuts, bagels and compliments every time she saw you,” Crandall said. “Deb has a way of making you feel like you are the most beautiful, hardworking person out there. She was the grandma of the unit and one of the first people I went to when I needed to smile after a long shift. She always knew exactly what to say.”
ECMO clinician Teresa Harvey said Hutchison’s upbeat attitude and genuine interest in others made working with her a pleasure.
“She has a heart of gold and will be missed by her patients and the entire NICU team.”
When fellow nurse Molly Nice marveled at how many lives Hutchison must have touched over the years, the retiring nurse deflected the compliment.
“I really just have to be thankful for all those who have touched my life in those years,” Hutchison responded.
“I think that really just encompasses exactly who Deb is and what she lives for,” Nice said. “Selfless, kind, compassionate. I can’t thank Deb enough for all the memories and the love.”
Pam Schoonveld worked with Hutchison for the past 32 years, their shifts sometimes overlapping from nights to days.
“Deb has been an icon on our unit, and her retirement marks the end of an era for the Riley NICU,” Schoonveld said. “I've looked up to her as a nurse, a person and as a spiritual leader. I'm so excited for her … but I also get a little sad knowing that I won't get to see her smiling face or get a big bear hug from her after a grueling nightshift when she arrived for her dayshift.”
Penelope Eldridge also remembers those hugs.
“Deb taught me how to really care for patients and their families,” Eldridge said. “She got attached to all her babies. And she would give everyone hugs – parents and nurses.”
BAG OF MEMORIES
Two days before her last shift, Hutchison spent precious time going through her work bag – the same bag she has carried for years. (She’s frugal like that, she said.)
What treasures did she find in that bag?
A few pictures of patients destined for her fridge, a prayer for nurses, a collection of pins, thank-you notes, a screwdriver to replace batteries in patients’ mobiles and music boxes, a Bible and a key given to her by a parent whose child was in the NICU years ago.
It’s labeled “trap door key,” and it referenced Hutchison’s penchant for wandering among the NICU modules and visiting with other parents, sometimes walking people who were lost where they needed to go.
“I was always finding someone to talk to in the halls when I stepped out,” Hutchison laughed. “People would say she has fallen through the trap door again.”
As that door has opened to retirement, the veteran nurse is adjusting to life outside the NICU, but she still gives free hugs and advice.
“We make a difference every day. Choose to make it a positive one. Be kind and forgiving to yourself. When all is finished, the reward is greater than the effort,” she said.
“Riley has been my family, my identity and my support and has nurtured my heart’s desire. In all honesty, I can say that I received more from my time at Riley then I gave. What a blessing.”
What a blessing indeed.
A luncheon and NICU reunion are tentatively planned for April 30. Details to come.
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