By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jessica Gorka was in high school when her little brother was diagnosed with leukemia. His illness would shape both of their lives.
He survived and is doing well today. She went on to nursing school and joined the staff at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health 11 years ago. All of that time has been spent caring for kids with cancer on the stem cell unit, 5 East A.
“My brother was my first and biggest inspiration. Now these kids and families continue to inspire me.”
Gorka said she always figured she would return to the Chicago area, where her brother was treated, but then she moved to Indianapolis for school and fell in love – with the city and with Riley.
“After I started working at Riley, I knew that’s where my heart was,” she said. “I love the people I work with and I love the kids and the families. It’s my dream; it’s where I want to be.”
Gorka, who married her high school sweetheart, Ryan, seven years ago, said the miracles she witnesses on the unit and the relationships she forms with patients and families keep her going, even when times are tough.
“I’ve seen kids come to the brink of death, kids that shouldn’t survive and then they do and they walk out the door and don’t relapse. Not every kid makes it, but when you do get to witness the miracles, it gives you the drive to push forward.”
Even when children don’t survive, she said, families show amazing grace, which is inspirational in its own way.
“I’ve had so many families reach out and thank us for the care we’ve given their children.”
The whole unit is a big family, she said, “so when bad things do happen, we’re there for each other.”
Off the clock, Gorka works out four days a week to manage stress and enjoys hanging out with her husband and spending time with their two dogs, Dixie and Lexi.
Kelsi Lawless, a nurse in the PICU, said Gorka does everything she can to ensure the kids she cares for live their best lives while inside the hospital, which can be a long time.
“She is always willing to teach people (even outside her unit) about the kids she cares for, which is so awesome to come together from different units,” Lawless said. “It is important for nurses in other units to teach each other about all of our patient populations, because it can help improve outcomes.”
Gorka, who works as a bedside nurse and charge nurse, hopes to return to school soon to study for her nurse practitioner degree and wants to remain in the stem cell unit after she completes the program.
“I love it so much. I love my team and the respect we have for one another.”
She also loves learning and appreciates the innovative care she can be a part of on the stem cell unit, including CAR T-cell therapy.
“I’m super excited about that. Our physicians involve us in the learning process, and we get to apply it.”
Aside from her clinical duties, Gorka is a member of a safety advocacy group at Riley dedicated to improving patient care and satisfaction.
In her 11 years at Riley, Gorka said the hospital has gotten bigger and better, particularly in the areas of safety and family support.
“I feel we’ve become even more of a welcoming environment, showing families we’re here to provide the highest level of care.”