Riley’s Terry Stigdon: ‘I’ve Seen Miracles Happen Here. I Have.’
Her career started as an aide in a nursing home caring for a fierce woman named Ethel. Today, Terry Stigdon is a clinical director at Riley, overseeing emergency, trauma, forensics and behavioral health.
“The thing is when you work at Riley, you see all these beautiful things, these wonderful things. I tell you, I’ve seen miracles happen here. I have.” – Terry Stigdon
There was the 16-year-old boy dying of cancer, lesions on his lungs. Doctors were crying as they told his family there was nothing more they could do.
Terry Stigdon was there, too, trying not to cry as she listened to the boy’s mother.
“The mom is smiling with this peace about her, saying, ‘God gave him to me for 16 years. He’s His. He can have him back,’” says Stigdon, who at the time was a nurse at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. “She was just grateful for the 16 years she got with him.”
That boy’s room was packed with family members and friends saying their goodbyes and praying over him.
Treatment stopped. The next day, the boy had fewer lesions on his x-ray. Another day and the lesions were almost gone. The day after that, they had vanished.
That boy is now 32, married and thriving. Each year, Stigdon looks forward to the Christmas card she receives from his family.
“Yes, I’ve seen amazing things happen here,” she says. “I truly have.”
It’s been nearly 20 years of amazing things for Stigdon, who started at Riley in 1998 as a nurse on the intensive care unit. She is now the clinical director of Riley’s emergency services, trauma, pediatric forensics and inpatient behavioral health.
Her role is a strategic one looking at operations from a global perspective as well as day-to-day operations. She coaches new leaders, promotes growth of the programs and fights for the state’s most vulnerable.
But, at the end of the day, it all boils right back down to what happens inside those hospital rooms.
“Terry sees her work at Riley as a calling to serve children, not a job,” says Paul Haut, M.D., chief operating officer at Riley. “This translates into a joy for her work and a drive to improve, which she shares with her coworkers and our patients and families.”
Patients and families. Stigdon gets teary eyed as she tells stories of the things she’s seen at Riley. One of those is about a little boy, the boy who is the reason Stigdon ended up in the emergency department.
“I’d been asked to come to the ED,” says Stigdon, a married mother of three. “And I’d say, ‘Nope. Nope. Nope. That’s not for me.’”
But one day, she was filling in at the ED when that little boy, a trauma patient, was brought in. He’d been thrown from a car, thrown far. Had it not been for his tiny shoe sticking up out of the ditch, first responders wouldn’t have even known he had been in that car.
Workers were fighting back tears after doing CPR to no avail. Stigdon was fighting back tears, too. The parents were on their way to see their little boy.
“He was filthy and it broke my heart,” Stigdon says. “All I wanted to do was clean him up.”
Stigdon washed the mud and the grass off of his face. She did what she could to smooth out his hair. She put a clean hospital gown on the boy and placed a sheet over his body.
“He looked really peaceful,” she says. “When the parents got there, they were able to see him that way.”
Stigdon remembers she walked outside of that room and just stood there. “Maybe, I could do this,” she thought. “Maybe I could.”
It’s amazing how life works, all the twists and turns that take people places. Stigdon’s story has plenty of them.
She grew up on the south side of Chicago watching “All Creatures Great and Small” on PBS. Naturally, she wanted to be a large animal veterinarian.
Her parents were great role models of following big career dreams. Stigdon’s dad started as a mechanic with Chicago Transit Authority and worked his way up to supervisory role. After working as a nurse’s aide, Stigdon’s mom moved to finance – climbing from bank teller to loan officer all the way up to vice president, working on financial negotiations overseas at Chase Bank.
“I was constantly told, ‘Just keep going. Don’t stop if it’s what you want to do,’” Stigdon says.
So, after graduating high school, Stigdon headed to Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University) for pre-veterinary medicine.
It didn’t go well. Stigdon was far from home and didn’t know anybody. So she moved back to Illinois, to Champaign where her sister lived. The University of Illinois had one of the top vet programs in the Midwest.
Stigdon remembers feeling overwhelmed there, too. And then, life shifted. Stigdon had baby Michael and needed to work full time. She moved to Charleston, Ill.
Finding a job wasn’t easy. The only place that was hiring was a nursing home, the position of nurse’s aide.
“I was like, ‘I can do that,’” Stigdon says. “Let’s do this.”
It turned out not only could she do it, she absolutely loved it. She loved working with people.
Ethel is the patient who stands out, who taught her the most. She suffered from dementia, was legally blind and was confused. Her method of coping was biting and scratching.
“She was fierce,” Stigdon says. “But, God love her, she was scared to death.”
One day, on a whim, as Ethel was attacking, Stigdon started singing a nursery rhyme – “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
“And she stopped swinging and she smiled and just started singing the song with me,” Stigdon says. “What I learned then is I have to meet people where they are. I have to figure out what works for them in order to help them help themselves.”
It’s a lesson that’s served her well in her role as RN and in leadership. Meet people halfway.
After leaving the nursing home, Stigdon took a job as a nurse’s aide at a home health care agency. She was assigned to an elderly woman with a cute grandson who came to mow his grandmother’s yard and take care of her fish tank.
That grandson asked Stigdon out. And on their second date – on the grandmother’s porch over a breakfast of turkey legs and fried green tomatoes -- Jay Stigdon said, “Marry me.” Stigdon thought he was kidding and said, “Sure. Why not?”
Three months later, in November of 1993, the couple married. It was the start of a new life for Stigdon.
“I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am without Jay,” she says. “He really pushed me to go back to school. He was there for me. He was so sweet and super. I wouldn’t be here if not for him.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean things were easy. When the two got married, they had nothing. Michael was 2, Stigdon was making minimum wage and Jay was a press operator at a hospital.
They lived paycheck to paycheck. Stigdon remembers crying one night because they were eating chicken legs again. They were always on sale. It was all they could afford.
All the scrimping paid off. Stigdon graduated with an LPN degree from Ivy Tech in Terre Haute and got a job working in a rehab hospital.
She was smart, asked all the right questions, the doctors told her. She needed to get her nursing degree.
In 1998, she graduated as a registered nurse. Now to find a job. Her nursing school friend knew Stigdon was interested in pediatrics. She told her about an open house at Riley Hospital for Children.
There was a phone number on the insert from the newspaper. Stigdon called it and asked for directions to this children’s hospital in the big city.
The open house was from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Stigdon had planned to arrive at 5:30 p.m. But after hours of driving, getting turned around and ending up on country roads on the northwest side of Indy, she was in tears.
As she walked into that open house, 20 minutes before it closed, the food trays were picked over and people were cleaning up. But one woman, the manager of the cancer unit at Riley, was still there.
She made Stigdon a plate of food and sent her on a tour of Riley.
“I walked into ICU and went, ‘Wow. This is cool,’” she says. “It felt like home.”
In July of 1998, Stigdon started at Riley as a nurse in the ICU. The mark she made was quickly evident.
It started with the single mom, new to Indianapolis, with her two boys. The younger boy, 8 or 9 years old, was riding his bike and got hit by a car. A hit and run. He had a horrible head injury.
“I just remember the mom would just sit there hopeless,” Stigdon says. “So I would give her stuff to do.”
She showed the mom rehab exercises she could do with the boy’s hands and feet. So when he got better, he would be able to walk and do all the things he had done before.
Stigdon didn’t think much of that. But in 1999, when Riley was celebrating its 75th anniversary, a string of television commercials ran about the hospital.
One of those featured that mom, talking about Stigdon and how much hope she gave her.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I had no idea.”
Her career at Riley quickly took off. Stigdon went from charge nurse in the ICU to manager of the ICU. After five years in management, Stigdon decided she wanted to go back to the bedside.
She became a nurse in the resource pool, floating between Riley and University Hospital, filling in on different units. Then that little boy came in to the ED who was thrown from the car.
Yes. She could do emergency. Stigdon took a nursing job in the ED in 2007 and then moved up to shift coordinator on nights. She’ll never forget some of those young nurses she worked with.
Stigdon instituted teaching moments. If one nurse came up with a question, she would announce overhead: “Teaching moment, nurses’ station, two minutes.”
“And we all learned together,” says Stigdon, who became manager of the ED in 2012 and then last year took on the director role.
Three of those nurses have gone on to get their master’s degrees. One is a nurse practitioner, one is helping to open a children’s hospital in the Middle East and the other is an operating nurse for kids in underserved countries.
“What gets me more teary eyed than anything is seeing someone where they are and remembering where they were,” says Stigdon.
After all, Stigdon started out herself as a 20-year-old nurse’s aide in a nursing home, taking care of a woman named Ethel, with no idea of all the amazing things she would see inside a children’s hospital in Indianapolis.
More On Terry Stigdon
Family: Stigdon and husband, Jay, have three children: Michael, 26, Josh, 23 and Zoe, 16.
From the CNO: “Terry has been instrumental in leading children's emergency care both at the local and national levels,” says Elizabeth Paxton, chief nursing officer at Riley. “Terry is seen as a leader throughout Riley, both inside and outside nursing.”
Outside of Riley: She sings in the choir at LifePoint Church. “It’s so fulfilling,” Stigdon says. She and Jay also volunteer in the nursery. “I love just hanging out with my husband. It doesn’t matter what we do together. We just love hanging out.”
Her voice: This month, Stigdon will be a featured panelist at the Power Breakfast Series focusing on healthcare, put on by Indianapolis Business Journal.
Her passion: Stigdon is known as an advocate for behavioral care and children’s sexual assault. She serves on the board of Legacy House, which not only advocates for victims of violence but also provides free trauma counseling for those victims.