Riley nurse is a big kid at heart who loves her job

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Her first year as a nurse fell amid a pandemic, but even the virus can’t keep Sarah McGregor away from her holiday crush – Santa.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist,

When Sarah McGregor stepped into her nursing shoes and scrubs for the first time nearly 10 months ago, she experienced equal parts pride, relief, excitement and joy.

Along with a healthy dose of fear.

She had worked so hard for so long to realize her dream of becoming a pediatric nurse, including six years as a patient care assistant on 8 East at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.

She was ready.

That was in late February.

In March, the world changed. The coronavirus pandemic seeped its way into our lives, slowly at first, but quickly gaining strength. It changed the way we worked, the way we traveled, how we shopped and how we educated our kids.

For McGregor, nursing suddenly came with new risks, new standards of care and new safety protocols.

“It has definitely been very different, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “When I started, it was probably two weeks before we all were wearing masks all the time, patients couldn’t go to the playroom, siblings couldn’t come up, and both parents couldn’t be at the bedside.

“So on top of me growing as a nurse, there were lots of learning curves. It was like, ‘OK, you’re a nurse and, oh by the way, here’s a pandemic. Have fun!’ ”

It’s been quite a year alright. But there’s always a bright spot for this big kid at heart. And that’s the promised arrival of Santa Claus every year on the floors of Riley.

This year was no different, even if Santa himself took on a new robot-like appearance.

“Last week when I saw Santa, I lost it,” McGregor said. “Every year when Santa comes, I don’t know why, but I’m always here. And I scream down the hallway. I scare this poor man every year. I’m more giddy than the children.”

McGregor baby photo

As a child, she loved to see Santa, even if some of her old photos tell a different story. She would work herself into a state while in line as a kid, worried that she would forget what she wanted to ask St. Nick to bring her for Christmas. Blocks? A puppy? A baby doll?

As an adult in years past, she would always give the big guy a hug when he dropped by 8 East to visit team members and patients, and someone always took her picture, sometimes by herself, sometimes with a group.

“That’s one of those things I love most about Riley is no matter what else is happening, we are still all about the kiddos,” she said. “It’s not all focused on the sickness. Even though you’re in the hospital, Santa can still come and see you.”

This year, amid the pandemic, Santa looked a little different. His image was on an iPad topping a pole that was outfitted in an elf suit.

When he rounded the corner with the help of child life specialists, McGregor spotted him down the hall and squealed. There were no hugs this year, but she gave him a wave and posed for a photo. On the iPad screen was the same Santa she has seen in previous years at Riley.

Even the kids thought it was pretty cool.

“There’s a robot coming in their room and there’s Santa on the iPad, and he knows their name,” she said. “How cool is that? It made my day.”

Santa had goodie bags for every child, even those whose rooms he couldn’t enter.

McGregor hugs Santa at the hospital

McGregor doesn’t ask for blocks, or pets or dolls for herself anymore, but she loves that Riley donors and the Riley Cheer Guild provide those toys and more for young patients throughout the year.

She does have one special request this year, however.

“If I could ask Santa for one thing this year, it would be relief from COVID. Just one day that COVID didn’t exist, that families had plenty of food on the table, healthcare workers weren’t pushed to the limits, and all children had toys under the tree.”

While McGregor hasn’t been involved in direct care for kiddos with COVID, she acknowledges that her first year of nursing has produced some extra anxiety, which she tamps down by praying, talking to her mom and putting her trust in the science behind the virus and the vaccine.

The year has also strengthened the pride she has in her profession.

“This is what nursing is. This is what we signed up for. This is the oath I took. So, let’s go.”

No second thoughts?

“I’m still that annoying person who skips into work. I love my job so much.”

Photos without masks were taken in previous years.