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She’s Been There for Nearly 50 Years of Wonder

Blog She’s Been There for Nearly 50 Years of Wonder

Judy Atkins has been an occupational therapist at Riley Hospital for Children since 1968. She has been the threshold to a whole new world for countless children.


The little girl came up to her mother. She needed some coins. There was a vending machine just down the hospital hallway and she wanted to go buy herself a soda.

She’d never been able to do that before. This little girl had cerebral palsy. She was completely dependent on others to move, to do anything at all – even to buy a soda out of a machine.

But occupational therapist Judy Atkins had just gotten the girl into a power wheelchair at Riley Hospital for Children. And the girl’s mother just happened to have some quarters.

“Her mother gave her money and she drove the power chair to the end of the hall,” Atkins said, “and she got herself a Coke.”

And as that mom watched her little girl do such a tiny, simple thing, tears poured down her face.  One wheelchair and everything had changed. That girl’s life would never be the same.

“Thank you, Miss Judy,” she said.

Miss Judy Atkins has been at Riley for innumerable little miracles just like that, for nearly 50 years of wonder. She came fresh out of college as an occupational therapist to Riley in 1968. And she never left.

“She is the threshold to the world for countless children and their families,” said Dr. Marilyn Bull, a developmental pediatrician at Riley. “Skilled, dedicated and extremely caring are the descriptions that immediately come to mind when we think of Judy.”

Through the years, Atkins has helped untold numbers of patients be able to do things just like other children, has helped them feel like they really fit in.

“If you can make a child mobile that isn’t mobile or if you can provide a piece of equipment that can allow the family to include this child, going to the ballgame with their siblings, you’re really making a difference,” said Atkins, who is 70 and married with two grown sons and four grandchildren. “You see that difference and people thank you for that kind of thing.”

Through her nearly-49-year career at Riley, plenty of patients have thanked Atkins. And plenty have fallen in love with Miss Judy. There was even a 5-year-old boy, an amputee, who Atkins trained to use his prosthetic. He didn’t just fall in love.

“His mother told me, ‘I just want you to know, Judy, that he thinks when he grows up, he is going to marry you,’” Atkins said.

She’d never heard sweeter words.

A Little Brochure Changed Everything

Raised on a dairy farm in Milton, Ind., Atkins was one of six children. Her family had more than 100 cows and it was Atkins’ and her sister’s job to milk those cows every morning before school and to milk them every evening after.

That was just fine with Atkins, hanging with the animals. She was extremely shy. In high school, she showed cattle in 4-H, was in the National Honor Society and was valedictorian of her class.

But one day, during her junior year, Atkins’ older sister who was in college studying pre-med brought home a brochure titled: “Medical Careers for Women.”

As Atkins flipped through it, she saw a description for an occupational therapist. It caught her eye and she started thinking. That could be a really interesting career.

“And honestly, that’s how I picked it up,” she said. “From a little brochure.”

In July of 1968, a month after graduating from Indiana University with a degree in occupational therapy, Atkins accepted a position at Riley.

At the time, she figured she would work a year or so at Riley and then head off to another hospital. But she could never drag herself away.

“It’s the patients. It’s the physicians. It’s a very good place,” she said. “There are a lot of great things going on here.”

The greatest, she says, are those kids.

The Wonderful Stories

There was the little girl, whose arm was amputated below the elbow. Her parents brought her in because she couldn’t get the hang of tying her shoes with one hand.

Within one session with Atkins, the girl had it down. Atkins had figured out that the problem wasn’t the little girl. It was her shoe laces. They were too short for anyone to tie. She needed longer laces.

When she told the girls’ parents that, the mom said: “She kept telling us the laces were too short, but we just couldn’t believe it could be that simple.”

It was that simple. And Atkins learned quickly in her job, kids are smarter than you think. They are also incredibly honest.

There was the boy in the burn unit about 12 or 13. He had been severely burned, so badly that even his ear was a prosthetic. Atkins had become close to that boy. He talked to her about how kids at school gave him a hard time.

In particular, there was a girl who wouldn’t stop. He told Atkins his plan.

“He was going to tell that girl if she didn’t stop making fun of him, he would pull his ear off and throw it at her,” Atkins said. “Nobody at school knew he had a prosthetic ear.”

Sure enough, the boy followed through.

“He pulled his ear off and threw it at her. And then she fainted,” Atkins said, still chuckling. “They are kids first. They are definitely kids first.”

A CARING EYE

It’s the little things that sometimes go unnoticed that Atkins has always tried to keep an eye on.

There were popsicles they used to make at Riley for kids with cleft lips and palates. One little boy who had just had a cleft repair had arm restraints. Doctors were worried he would pick at the lip and injure himself.

Problem was, when the popsicles were brought around, one had been put in his hand. Atkins walked by and saw him sitting there watching the popsicle melt because he couldn’t get his hand to his mouth.

She took that popsicle and sat there with that boy, working on charts, holding his popsicle to his mouth.

“Just being observant of every little thing around you,” Atkins said. “That’s so important.”

Patients at Riley have been so lucky to have Atkins’ eyes on them all these years.

Don’t Ask Her For A Retirement Date…

She doesn’t have one. It’s that farm work ethic, she swears. All those years toiling as a child and into her teens, milking cows every day, taught her a lot.

“Retire? I don’t know what I want to do,” Atkins said. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”

She might work another 10 years, maybe 20. Life is better when you’re busy, she said. Life is better when you feel accomplished. When you’re helping others.

And Atkins has thousands of wonderful little miracles under her belt. 

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

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