Riley’s Beloved Echo Tech: ‘My Heart’s So Full Of Love, It Feels Like It’s Going To Burst.’
Nancy Kehlenbrink is the woman who takes the time to get to know each and every child, who gets attached to her patients, who cries with their families and who has concocted a repertoire of tricks to make things easier for the kids she sees.
Gabriel Rowles was nine months old when he changed Nancy Kehlenbrink’s life -- an adorable, chubby-cheeked, curly blonde little guy.
She fell in love.
This year, Gabe turns 16. And when he came back to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health this week, he couldn’t stop smiling at Kehlenbrink.
“He is one of my top five miracles ever,” says Kehlenbrink, a pediatric cardiac sonographer (echo tech) at Riley. “I’ll never forget him.”
And Gabe’s family has never forgotten Kehlenbrink, either.
“She is amazing,” says Gabe’s mom, Amy. “You’re always so glad to see her face. It’s just reassuring to know someone so familiar, someone who knows Gabe’s story – and someone who gets it.”
That’s Kehlenbrink’s calling card at Riley. In 27 years at the hospital – the first nine as a respiratory therapist and the last 18 as an echo tech – she’s been beloved Nancy.
She is the woman who takes the time to get to know each and every child, who gets attached to her patients, who cries with their families and who has concocted a repertoire of tricks to make things easier for the kids she sees.
“God gave me thousands of kids,” says Kehlenbrink. “My heart is just so full of love sometimes, it feels like it’s going to burst. Every patient I bring into my room or I go to see, they are family.”
Behind every image, every heart, every chamber, vessel and valve is Stephen. Behind every black and white screen is Stephen.
He would have been Kehlenbrink’s older brother. Her parents, Bill and Shirley, were in the hospital in 1962 with what they thought was a healthy baby boy.
It was time to take Stephen home.
“They were ready to walk out the door with him when my mom felt something wasn’t quite right,” Kehlenbrink says.
Stephen started turning blue. After rushing him to a children’s hospital near where Shirley had given birth, the Kehlenbrinks were told he had a 50 percent chance of survival.
By the time Shirley was released and got to Stephen, he had died.
“That devastated my parents,” Kehlenbrink says. “And that changed them.”
Stephen, they later found out, had hypoplastic left heart syndrome. In those days, no cardiac ultrasound existed.
“That’s why I love doing this,” Kehlenbrink says, “because when I do an echo and we find that, I know I’m helping a family from going through what we did.”
She is saving Stephen – again and again.
“I can’t even call this a job,” Kehlenbrink says.
Because it’s not a job to her. It’s her world, her calling, her mission.
She’s more than once had a vacation day planned and then looked at the schedule, only to see that one of “her kids” is coming in that day. Kehlenbrink will cancel the vacation day.
“Every bit of courage and strength and life I have, I get here everyday,” she says. “I’ve got a lot of pieces of my heart that have gone to heaven. I’ve got a lot of pieces of my heart that are still here.”
There was the little girl, sitting there in front of Kehlenbrink, a 3-year-old girl with leukemia. She was very sick, but she was smiling, oblivious to the weight of her prognosis.
Kehlenbrink was checking to see if the girl’s heart was well enough, strong enough, to get chemotherapy.
“She was just amazing,” says Kehlenbrink. “This little girl had just had a port put in, but she was upbeat, sitting up, watching cartoons.”
When the girl’s mom walked out into the hallway, to get a break from the devastation, from the stress of it all, she burst into tears.
The little girl heard her mom crying.
Kehlenbrink quickly distracted the girl, showing her images on the screen. Out of nowhere, the girl stopped and looked at Kehlenbrink and became stern. She wanted her mom back in the room.
“You need to go get my mommy right now,” she told Kehlenbrink.
When her mom walked back into the room, the little girl asked Kehlenbrink to go back to one certain image.
“Look mommy, I’m going to be OK,” the girl said to her mom, “because Jesus is in my tummy.’”
“I couldn’t even speak after that,” Kehlenbrink says.
That little girl was so sick she wasn’t expected to live very long, but halfway through her treatment, tests revealed the cancer was gone.
“I’ve been taught a lot of really significant lessons,” Kehlenbrink says. “I’ve had some amazing things happen here.”
More with Kehlenbrink
Growing up: She was raised in Richmond, Ind. Her late father, Bill, was a photojournalist and her mom, Shirley, was a respiratory therapist – who spent the last 10 years of her career at Riley. Kehlenbrink knew early on she wanted to be in the medical field. By age 3, she was mesmerized by the photos in her mom’s medical books.
Education and career: She spent three years at Ball State University and then went to Ivy Tech in Richmond to become an EMT. She was then hired at a Richmond hospital to train to be a respiratory therapist. When the unit was in need of someone to learn echocardiography, Kehlenbrink stepped up – and she loved it. She left Richmond 27 years ago to come to Riley, where she spent nine years as a respiratory therapist before moving to echo.
On her first visit to Riley: “I couldn’t get it off of my mind and I couldn’t get it out of my heart.”
Home in the bungalow: Kehlenbrink is mom to Riley, a golden retriever mix; Sarah, a Sheltie; Muffy, a miniature Pinscher mix; Rascal E. Rabbit, a French bull dog and Yorkie mix; and two cats, Cookie and Morris. She also does photography on the side.
Little known tidbit: She was a standout tennis player in high school and had a scholarship to play college tennis.
Devotion to Riley: “I couldn’t imagine not being here.
I’ve been here 27 years. I’m hoping to be here for 50. Then, I will be a volunteer after that. I’m the fortunate one. There is no way I could ever give back as much as I’ve received.”