She Cures Something Else At Riley -- Those Scary Feelings

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Maggie Kirles is a child life specialist at Riley Hospital for Children and it’s her job to put the littlest of patients at ease.

Sometimes, it happens in a whirlwind. What everyone thought was something minor -- the blurred vision and the headaches – turns out to be a brain tumor.

And before the child has a chance to even grasp what’s going on, he is up on the ninth floor at Riley Hospital for Children. In a strange bed, being told he will have brain surgery.

And he is terrified.

Then, a sweet soul walks into his room. Her name is Maggie Kirles.

And through the tears, the nervousness, the panic, that boy will start to smile.

Kirles, a child life specialist at Riley, brings in a board game, Chutes and Ladders. She offers up a stuffed animal. She begins to tell the child what it means to have surgery -- how it’s not like he might have seen on TV.

Take the anesthesia he’ll have before surgery. She shows him the mask and lets him put stickers on it. Together, they blow bubbles through it.

“When I see kids’ fears start to go away and they can relax and understand what’s going on, that’s a win,” said Kirles, 28. “It doesn’t change that something has happened, that they are here, but if they have a better understanding or a better idea of how to cope with that, then I’ve done my job.”

Her job. It’s one people often don’t think of when they think of a children’s hospital. There are the doctors and nurses. There are surgeons and medical technicians. But they are the medicine, the healing part of Riley.

Kirles cures something else: those scary feelings.


Kirles works on 9 West at Riley, and has for more than five years. It’s the floor where patients come for organ transplants, neurosurgery, neurology, urology and ENT.

Her youngest patient on this day is 13 days old. Her oldest will often be a teenager.

She likes to tell her patients, as a way of explaining her job, that she has two duties at Riley.

“One is to make sure you understand why you’re here -- answer questions you have about things in your room, things on your body and what we’re doing to help you,” Kirles said. “The other part of my job is to make sure you’re having fun while you’re here.”

The fun. Taj Lamont Traylor got a taste of the fun this week. Kirles brought Taj, 6, into the playroom of the unit. She let him pick what he’d like to do. Candy Land it was.

The two laughed and high fived as they played. They talked about the candies, about his feelings, about his family.

And then, Kirles took out a stuffed doll for Taj to practice putting an IV in – just like his IV. Taj named the doll, which looked like a gingerbread man, Ginger Cookie.

“Where would this go on Ginger Cookie?” Kirles asked Taj, holding out an IV arm cover.

Taj smiled. It looked a lot like his IV cover.

“Maggie is the heart of everything good in this world and our kids would not have good experiences here without her,” said Lori Stanley, a nurse on 9 West. “She calms the patient down and makes all the scary procedures seem not so terrifying.”

Sometimes, as a nurse, Stanley said she has to play the “bad guy,” starting IVs, sticking tubes in scary places. Even taking blood pressure can be traumatizing to a child.

“Maggie is always my first line of defense when I know my patient may have a hard time with a procedure or the hospitalization in general,” Stanley said. “She connects with kids on a different level. Her passion isn't something that is learned. It's simply a gift and Maggie is God's gift to this hospital.” 


There was the 5-year-old boy. He had had an organ transplant and was being a tad stubborn. He didn’t want to walk. Doctors said he needed to get up and mobile; it was crucial to his recovery.

So, Kirles designed a scavenger hunt around the unit with his favorite superhero cutouts. She hid them, he found them and he moved.

Kirles gave him a prize for it.

There was the teenage girl with the scar on her stomach after surgery. Spring break was coming up. Kirles talked her through her fears of looking different in a bikini. Her insecurities about how she might look puffy due to steroids.

And there are the kids who don’t want anything to do with Kirles – at first.

“A lot of it is just respecting their boundaries,” she said.

Kirles is just about the only service in the hospital where the child has a choice – picking out a game, or a color of crayon or saying no to Kirles.

“So if that feels good to say no to somebody?” Kirles said. “Then yep, you can say no to me today.”

Then, each day Kirles checks back on them. Just to say hi and ask if they need anything.

“And I think when you respect what they say -- yes or no -- and the consistency of showing up, they are like, ‘OK. This girl is not going away,’” Kirles said. “‘Maybe she really does care.’”

She most definitely cares. Kirles has been at Riley before.


Her younger brother, Ted, was having trouble walking and coming down the stairs. He was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at Riley.

Kirles came to the hospital as a little girl, seeing the kind people working there as her brother received outpatient therapy.

“I remember walking the halls. I remember the glass elevators,” she said. “I knew it was a special place and I knew it helped my brother. So, I always wanted to work here.”

Kirles went to Indiana University, where she graduated with a degree in human development and family studies.

She had started as a nursing major – because she knew she wanted to work with kids at Riley – but she didn’t like the classes. Her older sister’s friend was a child life specialist. That sounded perfect to her.

She shadowed a specialist at Riley. “And I absolutely loved it,” she said.

Every single day, she loves it. Still.

She loves all 24 of those beds on 9 West that are hers to check on. She does rounds each morning with the medical team.

And then she works her magic, though Kirles is adamant about not taking all the credit.

She relies on referrals from doctors and nurses, she said, to know what’s going on in each of the rooms.

“How can I be helpful today? Does this patient have a procedure going on or are they recovering and getting bored and just need a craft?” she said. “I couldn’t do it without them. It’s really a team effort.”

 -- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
 Reach Benbow via email or on Twitter @danabenbow.

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