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Riley PICU Nurse: ‘I Want Them To See Past The Tubes And See Their Baby’

Blog Riley PICU Nurse: ‘I Want Them To See Past The Tubes And See Their Baby’

Kathy Shields job is to teach families how to take their children home on life support -- with ventilators and trachs. She is a kind teacher. She is a gentle force. And she understands.


Kathy Shields is standing there with an adorable, cuddly 5-month-old Bo Wilson in her arms. He has rosy cheeks and blue-striped socks. He has bright eyes. And he has all sorts of tubes attached to his body.

Bo has never seen his home or his crib or his playroom. He has been at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health since his September birth.

Yet, he has come so far. Born at 24 weeks gestation, Bo weighed just over 2 pounds at birth. He’s 11 pounds now. The goal is he will soon go home.

And helping the family each step of the way will be Shields.

For nearly 31 years, Shields has worked as a nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit at Riley, taking care of the sickest little patients.

Her job, now in the home ventilator unit, is to teach families how to take their children home on life support -- with ventilators and trachs. She is a kind teacher. She is a gentle force. And she understands.

“It is overwhelming for families to come in and see all these monitors and cords and machines. It’s very frightening,” says Shields, who came to Riley in 1987. “I want them to see past the tubes and see their baby.”

Bo’s great grandparents, Keith and Linda Wilson, have watched firsthand the compassion and knowledge Shields has.

“She’s just wonderful,” says Linda Wilson. “She’s helped us. She is just amazing with Bo. If he has an issue, she is right here.”

And as a retired nurse, Wilson is impressed with Shields’ vast knowledge.

“I’ve not asked her anything she doesn’t know,” Wilson says. “Not one thing she didn’t have the answer to.”

Shields, who has three grown children, says she can in many ways understand exactly what her families are going through. 

She had a son, Daniel, born with the genetic disorder Trisomy 18. He lived only two weeks. Throughout her career, Shields has cared for babies with the same disorder.

“It helped me do what I do because I can put myself in their position,” she says. “It gave me a new perspective.”

It also gave her the perspective of just how wonderful it is to watch her patients go home.

“The day finally comes that they don’t think is ever going to come,” Shields says. “To get to walk these families downstairs and see them get in the car and drive away, it is so rewarding.”

Sometimes she cries. After all, many of the babies have been with her for months. 

Shields works with any child going home with a ventilator who has never had one before. While the majority of her patients are babies form the NICU, she cares for all age ranges, including teens.

Her job is to teach families how to care for the trach, how to suction, how to do trach changes, feedings and what to watch for at home. What happens if the baby turns blue or the trach comes out or the heart rate starts dropping?  

“You just want to let them know that it’s normal to be afraid,” Shields says. “I always tell families when they go home, ‘If you’re not nervous that makes me nervous, because it is a big deal to take a baby home on life support equipment.’”

Shields says the home vent team is like a family and she credits the entire PICU with successful patient outcomes.

“I feel like all of us in that unit make a difference for the families,” she says. “It’s not just me or the nurses, it’s the whole group of people. Everybody has their part in getting these babies home.”

More With Kathy

Personal: Kathy and her husband, Michael, have three grown children (Jim, Julie and Jared), six grandchildren – from 1 day old to 11 years old -- and another on the way.

Outside of Riley: Kathy enjoys running (she will do her sixth Mini-Marathon this spring), hiking and traveling, especially going on cruises.

Career: She went to nursing school at the University of Evansville and fell in love with pediatrics while working at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital the summer before her senior year of college. After graduating, she worked at Cincinnati for eight years before coming to Riley to work on the then-named infant ICU.

A first: In 1987, not many hospitals sent kids home with ventilators. Riley was one of the first in the nation and had been doing it just a few months when Shields arrived. She got to care for the first home vent patients Riley ever had.

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

   Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.


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