Riley cardiologist leaves a legacy of excellence, kindness and compassion

Our Community |

01/03/2021

Caldwell Web

Dr. Randy Caldwell: “My major goal was to help these kids who were suffering and not surviving. I think that’s why we’re here on Earth – to help others.”

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

The important thing is not what you do in life, but what you leave behind.

That advice from Dr. Morris Green has guided Dr. Randall Caldwell since he was a young cardiologist-in-training nearly a half-century ago.

Dr. Green was the longtime physician-in-chief at Riley Hospital for Children who championed family-centered care before it was widely practiced around the country. That culture is the rock upon which Riley is built, and it has fit well with Dr. Caldwell’s kind, unassuming manner of care and leadership for nearly 43 years.

“It’s not about us; it’s about what we leave and what we can do for others,” he said just days before he would work his last shift at Riley, reading echocardiograms on New Year’s Eve to give others time to be at home with their families.

Dr. Caldwell, who brought the echocardiography program to Riley, is retiring after a year like no other, thanks to COVID, but also after a career like no other.

KIDS AND FAMILIES FIRST

It’s a career the IU School of Medicine graduate and Navy veteran said he was blessed to have, working with people who always put Riley kids and their families first.

Kids like one 9-year-old heart transplant patient who scrawled a heartfelt note to “his friend” Dr. Caldwell when he learned that his next visit to the pediatric cardiologist who had treated him for most of his life would be his last.

“It just brought tears to my eyes, reading his words,” Dr. Caldwell said. “He described me as his friend.”

That’s just one of scores of notes and letters and mementos he has received since announcing his retirement. A video tribute posted on the Riley Children’s Facebook page elicited heartfelt comments, and a team member whose daughter he took care of two decades ago pilfered one of his white coats and made a pillow out of it, complete with a shirt and tie, which he will treasure.

“The love I have received from people is more than I ever deserved.”

That humble nature defines the beloved cardiologist, who was just the third pediatric cardiologist in the state when he joined Riley the day after completing his fellowship. The other two – Drs. Don Girod and Roger Hurwitz – were also at Riley. Together they elevated and expanded the young pediatric cardiology program into a world-class heart center, currently ranked fifth in the nation in U.S. News & World Report’s hospital rankings survey.

Dr. Caldwell and heart surgeon Dr. John Brown, both of whom started on the same day back in July 1978, worked hand in hand to launch Riley’s heart transplant program in the decade that followed.

“John and I hit it off because we were similar ages and had young families,” Dr. Caldwell said. “We worked very closely together … to help propel the program. We started on the same day, and now we’re retiring the same day.”

Not by design, he said. It just happened. He always figured he would work a few more years, as long as his health was good, but COVID-19 changed his outlook.

“IN GOOD HANDS”

“I’ll be 75 here soon and … COVID really gave me a chance to see that there’s life beyond my work and to realize that I am married to a saint of a wife. She is the reason I’ve succeeded at everything.”

He and his wife, Sherry, raised five children, who have given them 11 grandchildren. Their daughter, Jessica Jones, is clinical manager of the cardiovascular critical care unit at IU Health Methodist Hospital.

The virus, which has been so deadly and destructive, killing more than 340,000 Americans now, helped him appreciate his own mortality and that of his loved ones.

And so he decided now was the time to step away from his life’s work, as bittersweet as that is.

“I know I am leaving things in good hands with Larry Markham, who has done an excellent job taking over for me as division chief. I realized that there are people coming after me who are going to do just as well if not better than me,” he said. “Patients are going to be in good hands.”

Dr. Markham said the opportunity to be mentored by Dr. Caldwell for nearly three years was a significant factor in his decision to join the Riley team.

“Our rather regular and often impromptu meetings allowed me to float ideas but also to better understand the history and the culture of our division,” said Dr. Markham, who referred to his mentor as a true Midwestern gentleman who set a high bar when it comes to caring for patients.

“After seeing some of your now adult patients, those patients and families adore you and remain appreciative of the time and care that you’ve given them,” he said, referring to both Drs. Caldwell and Brown in remarks to the cardiology team before Christmas.

SAYING THANK YOU

Dr. Caldwell missed the chance to see some of those patients at the annual December heart transplant reunion put on by Riley, which had to be canceled this year because of COVID. But he has heard from many others via Facebook who have shared their love and respect for him.

“Dr. Caldwell, we first talked to you in the very early hours on a Sunday morning when (our daughter) was transferred to Riley as a newborn. We have been so fortunate to have you leading her care through all of the years and surgeries. You always stopped in to check on her and helped us navigate parenting a heart warrior. We can never express the gratitude we have for you.”

That same patient is now a nurse practitioner on the Riley cardiology team.

“Riley Hospital is what it is because of people like Dr. Caldwell,” wrote Regina Rossetter, heart transplant coordinator. “His warmth, kindness, compassion, leadership, mentoring, integrity, intelligence, commitment and moral compass are just a few of his qualities. I have worked at the same place for 42 years because of colleagues like Dr. Caldwell. He will be missed.”

Never one to seek the spotlight, Dr. Caldwell said it’s the nurses, medical assistants, coordinators, administrative staff, housekeeping and other physicians who share all the credit for Riley’s success. All have a heart for the children and the families who seek their expertise.

“It has been such a pleasure working at Riley,” he said. “We were blessed beyond our expectations.”

And now he wants the attention focused on those people coming up behind him – they are the future.

“I’m not seeking accolades. I want to pay it forward. I want to build up the people coming after me, and I know John (Dr. Brown) feels the same way.”

Cleaning out his office has taken him on a trip back in time, but he is grateful for the journey.

Being division director wasn’t something he aspired to, yet he brought his philosophy of servant leadership to that role just as he has in everything he’s done in life. And if you do things for the right reasons, he said, it usually works out well.

“I have some kids now who are out 28-29 years from transplant and doing very well. That’s very rewarding, knowing these are patients who would have died if you hadn’t been able to do this,” he said.

“My major goal was to help these kids who were suffering and not surviving. I think that’s why we’re here on Earth – to help others. Whatever we have, we can’t take it with us.”

As Dr. Morris Green said, it’s all about what we leave behind.

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