When opportunities came her way, she said yes




After a 32-year career at Riley, Debbie Carter retires as in-patient manager for rehab services.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

It was the kids who first drew Debbie Carter to the field of physical therapy. She knew she wanted to work with pediatric patients when she started her career in Indianapolis.

Still, it took a while for her to achieve that goal. Out of school, she worked for two years with adult acute-care patients at the former Indiana University Hospital, now IU Health University Hospital.

She learned a lot but missed the kids, so she moved into a school-based therapy position for the next six years. It took a move to Riley Hospital for Children in 1988 for her to find the sweet spot.

“I really missed acute care and the clinical setting,” she said of her school job. “And I missed the camaraderie with other therapists. When I started at Riley, I can never forget those first few days and weeks, thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I have so much support here and so much to learn.’ ”

Childhood photo of Debbie's two grandchildren

And now, after 32½ years in a variety of roles, Carter said goodbye to her team last week, retiring to take on a new role – helping to care for her two grandchildren, ages 2 and 3 months.

It’s not easy to walk away.

“Every day is just really weird,” she said last week. “It’s such a strange feeling, knowing this will be the last time I do any of this.”

Carter, who grew up on a farm in Wabash, Indiana, retired as in-patient manager for rehab services at Riley, supporting the acute care multidisciplinary team of physical, occupational and speech therapists.

She says she never aspired to a leadership role, but opportunities came her way and she chose to say yes.

Carter worked in front-line patient care at Riley from 1988 to 1997, primarily in the burn unit and NICU, and loved it. She felt the Riley “magic” as soon as she started, attributing much of that to “really strong and proactive leadership.”

“It was such a good experience to have mentors around you all day long,” she said. “I could see in the medical center environment how many learning opportunities there were, so I never looked back.”

In 1997, she was working part time as a physical therapist while her own children were young. She was a team leader but did not have much administrative responsibility. That all changed when University Hospital, Methodist Hospital and Riley merged to become part of Clarian Health Partners and later IU Health.

She said yes to a management role, in part to be a voice for her team at Riley and University hospitals. She served as pediatric supervisor, managing all of the pediatric physical therapists at Methodist and Riley, both in-patient and outpatient. A few years later, she picked up all of acute-care adult PT as well.

“My care group became my team members that I was going to help support more than individual patients,” she said. “My goal was to do my best to support them and be their voice in a big place.”

Debbie smiles as she poses for a selfie

A reorganization in 2018 left her with a smaller but more manageable team at Riley, yet her passion for patients and their therapists never waned. Seeing patient outcomes improve as the disciplines evolved has been most rewarding, she said.

“I have seen the clinical specialty development really growing,” she said. “To watch my team develop with the NICU, the burn unit, congenital disorders and in the ICU, it’s just incredible.”

She points to a program launched last year in the pediatric intensive care unit designed to improve the mobility and recovery of critically ill children and led by Dr. Danielle Maue, associate medical director in the PICU.

“We’ve known in the adult world for a while that increased mobility earlier leads to better outcomes – decreased mortality, decrease in the number of ventilator days and a decrease in length of stay,” Dr. Maue said last spring.

Why not do the same with pediatric patients?

Physical and occupational therapists are active partners in the program, working with a multidisciplinary team of physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, speech therapists and child life specialists to plan and implement the new strategy.

Not every patient can be up walking around on a ventilator, but the goal is to get patients moving as safely as they can, even if that means just shifting them in bed or helping them sit up, rather than keeping them sedated.

Seeing the evolution of care, particularly for burn and ICU patients, as well as the growth and development of so many therapists whom she hired over the years, has been especially meaningful to Carter. The changes may have seemed gradual, but their collective impact has been substantial in the healing and recovery process for so many, she said.

The same could be said about Carter’s impact over the past 32 years.

Riley physical therapist Attie Vogler described her manager as “caring and hardworking,” someone who put her team first.

Debbie and Ben on a beach

“She is always willing to stay late or change plans to meet with her employees. She is constantly taking requests for items we need and will order them or go out and buy them herself if that is what is needed to allow the therapists to be able to best do their job,” Vogler said. “She follows up on the small details that help keep things running smoothly.”

Right down to cleaning up for people after a busy day, with help from a vacuum that she kept in her office, Vogler said.

The decision to retire wasn’t easy for Carter, but the pandemic and the birth of her newest grandchild last fall helped put things in perspective.

“I just didn’t want to miss out on this time with my grandkids.”

She’ll also get to spend more time with her husband, Ben, and her “best buddies,” Finn and Faye, the feline siblings she rescued from the Humane Society several years ago.

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org