Riley saved her life and now she helps save others

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02/22/2021

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Diagnosed with a rare heart condition as an infant, Keleigh Sims pours that same heart into her work as a nurse on the cardiac unit.

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

Keleigh Sims is one of the newest nurses on 3 West at Riley Hospital for Children, but she is no stranger to the hospital or the unit.

Sims’ days at Riley go back 23 years, when she was an infant, and doctors were scrambling to figure out what was wrong with her tiny heart.

Keleigh with Drs. Don Girod, John Brown, and Robert Darragh

Lucky for her – and her frightened parents – she had some of the best heart doctors you could ask for on her case: Dr. Don Girod, Dr. John Brown and Dr. Robert Darragh.

Sims was born with dextrocardia, a rare heart condition in which the heart points toward the right side of the chest instead of the left side. But it was more than that.

As Sims tells it today, it was her mom who kept pushing for more answers, knowing that something more was going on with her child, the youngest of four.

In a book given to her mom by a nurse, tear stains mark the page where scimitar syndrome is explained. It is described as a rare association of congenital cardiopulmonary anomalies. In her case, it included dextrocardia, a hole in her heart, an extra artery off of the aorta going back to the lung and flooding the lung with blood, and pulmonary veins on the wrong side of the heart.

Sims had her first surgery at 6 weeks old and another at 18 months old. She credits her parents and her doctors at Riley for saving her life, and today she has no restrictions on living the life she wants.

In fact, growing up she led an active life – playing travel softball, showing horses and helping out on her family’s farm.

And today?

Sims working within the cardiac step-down unit

“I’m a nurse because of the care I received at Riley,” she said. “I feel another level of connection with these families and kids.”

Sims was working as a tech on 7 West while she finished nursing school, but she knew she wanted to eventually find a position in the heart center. After shadowing another nurse on 3 West, Sims got an offer she couldn’t refuse.

Debbie Hazel, clinical manager on the cardiac step-down unit, told Sims she would have a job for her when she graduated.

Sims was overwhelmed. She couldn’t believe her dream was coming true.

“I called my mom. She was over the moon. She keeps saying it’s full circle. My dad cried.”

From that point forward, Sims began picking up extra shifts as a tech on 3 West to get accustomed to the flow and get more experience on the unit.

She started as a nurse just a month ago and couldn’t be happier. During orientation, she is working days, but in March, she will be on the night shift.

“It’s awesome! I love it!”

Baby photo of Sims

Dr. Darragh was on service recently and had all three of Sims’ patients, she recalled. One of the patients’ moms was talking to her about him when she volunteered that he was also her cardiologist.

“I can relate to these families,” she said. “You can see the heartbreak and you know when someone needs a glimmer of hope. I tell them, ‘You’re in the best hands here at Riley, and you can beat the odds.’ ”

The people she works with are beyond amazing, she said. And she is honored to be part of the team.

“It’s crazy that I’m now working for the people who literally saved my life.”

Her manager is thrilled for her as well.

“She has been eager to work with this cardiac population of patients since beginning at Riley,” Hazel said. “She is so engaged with our patients and families, eager to learn from our team and a great team player. You can tell her heart is more with these patients due to her personal experience with our medical team and her own health story.”

Sims and her husband, Cory, are looking forward to being parents someday, and the planned opening of the Mother-Baby Tower at Riley later this year makes that all the more exciting.

“I appreciate the comfort of knowing worst case if something were to go wrong, Dr. Darragh is going to be there,” she said. “The team is going to be there. If something’s wrong with my baby, I have the best team. If something’s wrong with me, I have the best team. It will be so nice to have all of my doctors in one building.”

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

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Robert K. Darragh, MD, FACC, FAAP

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John W. Brown, MD

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