Riley nurse pours her heart and soul into ‘heart babies’



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Alisha Cook knew she wanted to become a nurse when her baby sister was a patient at Riley two decades ago.

From the time she was 13, Alisha Cook knew she wanted to be a nurse at Riley Hospital for Children.

She practiced for the role by helping to care for her baby sister, Ginna, when the little girl was a Riley patient.

“I was here a lot with my mom when my sister was in the hospital. I just liked to mother her,” Cook said. “She was my baby doll. I wanted to do everything for her.”

The hospital setting didn’t scare Cook. Her mom worked in healthcare, so she was used to that part of it. Seeing her sister sick with kidney issues only inspired Cook to want to learn more.

“I wanted to help with her medicines, I wanted to come to her appointments. I just wanted to learn it all.”

Cook told her family she would be back here someday, and she kept her word, graduating from Indiana University School of Nursing and doing her clinical rotation at Riley before being hired as a bedside nurse in the Heart Center/CVICU.

Since 2005, she has cared for the sickest of the sick – babies and children with serious heart problems. Three years ago, she transitioned into the role of Navigator Nurse, a new position that she helped develop. Today, she shares that role with Kelly Orr, and together, they help families navigate their children’s health care journeys and transition from hospital to home.

One of the most important things they offer is consistency to the approximately 40 families with loved ones on 3 West and in the cardiovascular intensive care unit – providing a familiar face throughout a patient’s hospitalization and discharge.

“We get really close to these families,” Cook said. “We see them through some really stressful situations, and we try our best to make them feel empowered and prepared when they go home so they don’t have to get readmitted.”

Kids with serious heart ailments typically go home with lots of medicines and equipment; they are often receiving feedings through G-tubes; and they have multiple follow-up appointments. It’s a lot for any parent to manage, let alone a new parent with no experience taking care of a baby full time.

Cook and her husband, Matt, have three children, two of whom have required treatment for asthma at Riley.

“I’ve seen it from the other side, but I’ve only spent a couple nights with my kiddos here,” she said. “We have families who spend months and months and months here, and they might have other children at home. I just can’t imagine how they do it. So Kelly and I work really hard to make it a better experience for them.”

It’s not an easy task because of the complexity of the heart issues they see. Cook said she and her colleagues pour their heart and soul into the babies and their families day and night. So when a patient doesn’t survive, it’s devastating.

When there are negative outcomes, she leans on her faith. “It helps knowing that these babies are going to a good place,” she said.

Finding a balance between work and home can be hard. “But I want to feel it when I’m here. If I’m not feeling it, then I’m not real with everything.”

Cook’s job is to help families learn how to care for their sick kids, but she said those same kids and parents teach her so much more.

Blinking back tears, she said she’s learned “how I want to live.”

“These kids take a beating and just keep on going. And these families, I can’t imagine having to live the way they have to live. They’re so resilient. My cup gets filled so much by these families.”

Through the years, she has had many patients and parents who have had a profound impact on her, including one mom who delivered a baby with hypoplastic left heart syndrome not long before Cook delivered her first child, and another patient who received a heart transplant and is now thriving as an adult.

“I learned heart transplant through her,” Cook said.

It’s been two-plus decades since Cook helped nurse her baby sister back to health. Ginna Wood, now 23, had three surgeries as a baby but is doing fine now. She also works in the medical field.

As a teenager, Cook couldn’t have foreseen just how her nursing career would unfold, but she can’t imagine doing anything else or working anywhere else.

“This is one of the best units in the hospital,” she said. “We have outstanding management and leadership, and our nurses are among the smartest. I work with a group of awesome people.”

Her colleague Kelly Orr gives the compliment right back, describing Cook as “the most thoughtful, selfless, caring person I know.”

“Her positive attitude, strong work ethic, commitment to values and infectious smile make every day on the job with her fun and exciting,” Orr said. “Alisha is the reason I started as a Navigator Nurse, and she’s the reason I love continuing to help grow the role and be the best nurse I can be.”

– By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist
Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist