Riley Nurse Leaving After 41 Years: ‘It’s The Little Moments You Have With Patients That No One Sees.’

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Jo Ellen Rust came to Riley in 1976 and never left. She has played a part in so much at the hospital, but says it’s the interactions inside those hospital rooms that she will always treasure.

She remembers that teenage boy, the first patient who made her feel like she was using every ounce of nursing expertise she had.

It was the late 1970s. Souped-up cars and cruising were the life of a teenage boy. But this teen was now at Riley Hospital for Children, a quadriplegic. A car accident had shattered his body and his spirits.

Life for him was now confined to a Stryker bed. Nurses turned the bed, so he would be facedown on his stomach. Then, they turned it again so he would be lying on his back. They turned him frequently, all day and all night.

Jo Ellen Rust was one of those night nurses. And she remembers that devastated teen boy, how he wanted a washcloth over his eyes when he was lying on his back, so he didn’t have to face anyone. So he could hide in the darkness.

She remembers him on his stomach face down, staring at the hospital floor.

Rust would get down on the floor and sit there, right by his face. And she would talk to him. She would sit there doing her charts. She would sit there doing nothing. And she would talk.

In the midst of his devastation, Rust was a slither of hope. That teenage boy went home from the hospital, but later died of sepsis from a urinary tract infection.

Still, nearly four decades later, when Rust is asked to tell her favorite patient memories, that teenage boy is the first one she brings up. Those moments as they talked, that no one knew about. Those moments she saw a twinkle light up in his eyes.

“It’s in the little moments you have with your patients,” says Rust, a clinical nurse specialist who retired Tuesday after 41 years at Riley, where she ended her career working in the Riley Circle of Care Program for children with complex health care needs. “You get so much back from being a nurse, than just what you do.” 

It’s the patients. It’s their families. It’s the little things that happen that only Rust and her patients knew about.


Her first patient was a mouse. It was evident from a very young age that Rust would go into nursing. She always cared about people, about how they felt. She cared deeply about how any living thing felt.

One day, when she was just a little girl, her family was ready to leave for church in their hometown of Gosport, Ind., when her mom found a mouse with his leg caught in a chair.

Her mom took the mouse and put him on the back step, but Rust couldn’t bear the thought of him lying there by himself.

“Well, I was feeling sorry for it, so I went to the refrigerator and got some cheese and went out and tried to feed it,” Rust says.

That scared the mouse and he bit her. The family ended up at the doctor instead of church. But Rust’s mom and dad always told her they knew then, that nursing would be the perfect career for her.

Once in high school, Rust considered being a lawyer. But she felt too shy to think she’d ever be able to stand up and speak in a courtroom. Plus, the counselors always told the girls they should consider careers in teaching or nursing.

So, Rust headed off to Ball State University to become a nurse. She was most interested in psychiatric nursing or pediatric nursing. But a Riley nurse, who had graduated the year before from Ball State, asked Rust to shadow her during her senior year.

She loved the hospital. And she felt like she would be able to mesh her love of pediatrics with psychiatrics as she helped families navigate their child’s medical needs.

Rust interviewed for a position in the pediatric intensive care unit at Riley – and she landed the job. She walked into the hospital in 1976, fresh out of college, and she never left. Not for the next 41 years.

And if Rust had it to do all over again? “I wouldn’t change one thing,” she says.


She has so many memories, too many to count.

There was the patient, a little Amish boy, severely burned. The pilot light in the family’s home had gone out and when his dad went to light it, there was an explosion. Rust took care of that precious little boy in so much pain.

There was the young lady who had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, who had an accident and ended up being quadriplegic. She eventually got off the ventilator and could breathe on her own. The two grew very, very close.

They were so close that the young woman asked the doctors if she could leave the hospital for Rust’s wedding. That wasn’t allowed.

So, after the wedding, as Rust and her husband, John, were headed to their honeymoon, they stopped at Riley to see that girl. On her bed, she had two tiny gifts wrapped and waiting for the newlyweds. One was a little glass vase with some purple flowers in it.

“My husband always said he knew he was marrying Riley Hospital when he married me,” Rust says.

He was right.


A lot changes in 41 years. When Rust started at Riley, all medical records were handwritten. There were no computerized systems.

The medical equipment, too, was much less advanced. Rust laughs as she thinks about how far things have come. The chest tubes used for heart surgery patients used to be attached to glass bottles that sat in metal holders on the floor. The plastic tubes would come out of the patient’s chest and attach to the bottles. Nurses had to use bone wax on all the connections to make sure there were no air leaks.

Now, the chest tube is molded by plastic and it comes in a sterile bag.  

“You just hook it up and go,” Rust says. “The technology certainly has changed.”

And through the years, Rust’s job has changed – several times. That’s what she loves about Riley and one reason she stayed. She was given so many different opportunities.

After 10 years working in intensive care, Rust moved to the outpatient side, working with patients with cerebral palsy and spina bifida. Rust had gotten her master’s degree by then and was a clinical nurse specialist.

From there, Rust worked as a nurse for a pediatric neurosurgeon, then as an assistant to Riley’s chief nursing executive. In that role, she oversaw the hospital’s clinical nurse specialists and was in charge of development oversight and approval for all policies developed for nursing.

At one point, the child life department reported to Rust and it was during that time that she hired Riley’s first music therapist, Ann Hannan.

But it was 2003 that Rust started in the job she would retire from – helping patients who make repeated visits to the hospital and are seen by different specialists. It was her job to be the familiar face, help them navigate their medical paths.

“I was someone to follow them, who knows their story, who knows them,” Rust says. “I feel like they really appreciated that.”

Rust isn’t saying why she decided to retire now. It’s a personal matter. She is widowed and plans to spend more time with her family, including two grown sons, Jimmy and Spencer, her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter.

She also likes to play golf and read mystery novels.

Rust seems, at times, to find it hard to imagine a life after Riley. But really, Riley will always be with her.

After all, she has all the memories of those little moments with the patients – that only she knows about.

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.

   Reach Benbow via email or on Twitter @danabenbow.

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