“Kids teach you life lessons everyday”

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Dr. Richelle Baker combines her love of medicine and teaching in her work at Riley Hospital.


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

As a young girl, Richelle Baker used to make her mom sit still while she listened to her heart with a toy stethoscope.

She says she always knew she wanted to be a doctor, but college gave her the chance to explore some other career options.

“I was a straight A student, a varsity athlete in high school,” said Dr. Baker, now an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at IU School of Medicine and a hospitalist at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. “When I went to college, I had a little more fun and wasn’t sure I wanted to do medicine, so I explored other things like psychology and education.”

Dr. Baker’s undergrad degree is in elementary education and special education, but she knew before graduation that she was missing the science part of her schooling, so she enrolled in a biology pre-professional master’s program at IUPUI while she did her student teaching, then continued to teach while she waited to hear back after applying to medical school.

Born in England, she moved to Indianapolis with her family when she was 7 and has lived in the area ever since. She calls herself “an IU lifer,” because her undergrad and medical degrees are from IU, and she did her residency and fellowship here as well.

During her residency, she was interested in global medicine and developmental pediatrics. She didn’t have money to travel then but said she fell in love with inpatient hospital medicine, so she did her fellowship in pediatric hospital medicine. She feeds her love for travel now with medical mission trips to Haiti.

Her move into medicine did not come at the expense of teaching, however. As a hospitalist, she rounds daily with medical students, residents and interns, stopping in patient rooms to discuss treatment plans.

Last week, she was leading a group of learners on 7 West when they stopped at Jesse Burcham’s room to answer questions from Jesse’s parents about their 2-year-old son’s fluctuating sugar levels. Before entering the room, the students discussed what additional tests to run, with Dr. Baker posing questions to help them isolate potential concerns.

As the team of residents and students addressed questions from the anxious parents, Dr. Baker let them take the lead while she listened to Jesse’s lungs and heart with her stethoscope. She then offered clarification on certain points, managing to encourage the learners without transferring any underlying anxiety to them or to the parents.

It’s an approach she has learned as she grows in her hospitalist role. She acknowledges that her first year on staff she burned out a little.

“I had to figure out how to find my balance, and now I have been able to pass that on to the learners. Everybody has to find their balance differently. For me it was just recognizing what was making me burned out.”

For starters, she had a patient she was close to who passed away. Carter Mears, who died in 2015 at the age of 9, made a lasting impact on Dr. Baker.

“I learned so much from him about how to stay strong when you’re feeling weak.”

In addition, she said, she was doing a lot more work out of her fellowship, and there were the stresses of just being on staff. She discovered in reading her residents’ evaluations that she was transferring some of her anxiety onto her students. So she adjusted.

“With them I try to be more understanding, to put myself in their shoes, remembering the days when I didn’t know anything,” she said. “It’s rewarding to not get frustrated with your learners but to listen to them and figure out what stresses them out. Medical school is stressful, residency is stressful, being a physician can be stressful. But it’s also very rewarding.”

Her fourth-year students rewarded her with the Outstanding Teaching of Clinical Science: Pediatrics Award this year at Riley, which Dr. Baker regards as an honor.

“I love working with the residents and students. It’s one of my passions.”

She explains the hospitalist role at Riley as a general pediatrician who works only in a hospital. Traditionally, pediatricians would see all of their patients in the hospital when they were admitted, but now she and others in her role see the patients, then relay information back to the home physician.

As someone who loves the changing nature of medicine, she thrives on seeing a variety of patients, both at Riley in Downtown Indianapolis and at IU Health North Hospital.

“We do a little bit of everything,” she said. “We see kids who mostly have viral infections – UTIs, dehydration, bronchiolitis – and we see a lot of the kids who don’t have diagnoses yet – fevers for 14 days of unknown origin, chest masses that we don’t know if it’s infection or cancer. We get kids who don’t fit anywhere else at Riley and we also get the kids who are complicated. They may have diabetes, but they’re here for pneumonia, so the endocrinologist would rather we treat their pneumonia.”

Dr. Baker said her work with patients teaches her about life and how to appreciate it.

“People always ask me how hard is it to work with sick kids, and I always say it’s uplifting. Kids are courageous and outgoing and fun. They’re so honest and I love that they keep me on my toes. Kids teach you life lessons every day.”

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org

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