Every year at Christmas, Sheila Rocchio gets a card from a grateful family. For 20 years, this same family has sent her a holiday greeting as a way of saying thank-you for helping to save their child’s life.
Another family leaves a small gift on her front porch on Christmas Eve.
These small gestures come from the heart, something Rocchio understands. After all, the registered nurse is in the heart business.
Rocchio is a floor nurse in the cardiovascular intensive care unit at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. She cares for young patients whose hearts are broken, not because of love gone wrong but because of challenges at birth or beyond.
“I just find them to be pretty special little kids,” she said when asked what keeps her coming back after 23 years. “They are born with strikes against them. It’s not just something we can fix and they go on and live their life. It’s something they have to live with throughout their life.”
Unlike some areas of the hospital, the cardiac unit often follows and treats patients for years, so the healthcare team forms a bond with children and their parents.
“We walk those families through the whole process, as opposed to seeing a child in the PICU who might have been sick and then goes home,” Rocchio said. “Here, you follow the same children throughout their life, you get to know them and their families. I enjoy that, seeing the kids move on and do great things.”
Not that every story has a happy ending. While the job fills her up most days, there are times when it also takes a little piece of her heart, “where you think you can’t put another child in his mom’s arms for the last time,” she said.
She grieves for that lost child, but she does it privately. Her job, and the rest of the team’s job, is to help that family through that hard time. “We can’t fall to pieces, we have to be there for them.”
For perhaps a dozen years, Rocchio has helped one family whose son was born with a heart defect. The parents were very young when their child was born, but they had a supportive family, and together they have seen this young man through multiple heart surgeries.
“I’m not going to retire until I get that child through a heart transplant,” she said. “I could never leave without getting them through to the end.”
Rocchio, who lives with her husband, David, in Westfield, isn’t just committed to her Riley kids. Two to three times a year, the mother of two and grandmother of three travels with a medical team led by Riley heart surgeon Dr. Mark Turrentine to other countries to treat children who don’t have access to proper medical care.
She’s been to Uganda, Lebanon and Jordan, often caring for kids who live in refugee camps. These medical mission trips are a blessing to those children and their families, but Rocchio says she feels blessed to be able to be part of such important work.
“I can’t sing or dance, but I’m pretty good at what I do. It’s a gift I’ve been given that I can give to the world, to someone who truly would not have access to care. These children, if we did not treat them, many would just die.”
The team recently returned from Beirut, Lebanon, and is preparing to go to Amman, Jordan in a few weeks. Like always, Rocchio will pack a separate suitcase filled with toys for her young patients.
Pulling off a medical mission trip like this requires plenty of planning and dedication, but Rocchio values the teamwork that makes it happen.
“Once you travel and work closely with someone in a place where medical supplies are scarce, where drugs are scarce and you’re having to really become creative, you realize the skills and the knowledge your co-workers have,” she said. “It builds a sense of trust that we bring back home with us. It takes all of us to do what we do.”
Erin Pattee, program director, strategic planning for Riley, says the hospital and its patients are lucky to have Rocchio in their corner.
“Sheila is an exceptional patient advocate and leader in the cardiovascular intensive care unit. Her dedication to caring for our Riley kids and those abroad inspires her fellow team members and colleagues. Her passion for providing the highest-quality care is displayed each day through her leadership and engagement with our patients.”
– By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist