By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, email@example.com
The accident still brings tears to Caitlin Dougherty’s eyes.
She is recalling a fiery crash in 2004 that robbed her of one of her best friends, but years later, the impact would reveal her own path forward in life.
Dougherty was just a teenager when her friend and fellow high school swimmer Megan Sahlhoff suffered devastating burns in a car crash. Megan was hospitalized but did not survive her injuries.
Dougherty, who thought she wanted to be a marine biologist, changed course to focus her studies on children – specifically pediatric burn patients.
Today, the married mother of two is a decade into her career as a certified child life specialist on the burn unit at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.
She wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“I knew coming into the field of Child Life that I wanted to work with patients who had burn injuries, and I’ve been here ever since. I love the work that I do, and I think it’s a way to honor Megan,” said Dougherty, who remains in touch with her friend’s family 18 years after the accident in northern Indiana.
“TEARS ARE OK”
She brushes away her tears during an interview and apologizes. But she knows that those tears are part of continued healing. It’s a message she relates to her patients every day as they deal with fear, anxiety and pain on the burn unit.
“Tears are OK,” she tells her kids – both at work and at home.
“My job as a child life specialist isn’t to help you not cry at all during a procedure. It’s to help you find ways to cope positively through it, and crying is a coping skill,” she said. “I think in general people might see crying as a weakness, but it’s a normal emotion, so just embrace it.”
Easier said than done when you’re an adult, she acknowledges. But no less important.
Burn injuries are some of the worst a person can experience, so it takes a special human to work with these patients, especially when they are kids.
For Dougherty, the challenges are also the rewards.
“I love being able to empower and support children through something that is probably the most difficult part of their stay here on the burn unit,” she said. “It’s painful, and it’s hard emotionally both for families and children.”
But that’s part of why she loves what she does.
“The resiliency I get to see with the kids, how they come out on the other side and they’re stronger because of it … getting to be a part of that process keeps me going.”
HELPING THE HEALING
Children are like little sponges who soak up information and skills that she hopes will carry them through the rest of their life, she said. Skills like proper breathing help calm the body, and “alternate focus options,” including stress balls and toys, help distract.
“It really is an individualized approach,” she said. “I like figuring out what is going to work for each child. Sometimes that’s just holding their hand and talking to them during a procedure.”
As the lone child life specialist on the burn unit, Dougherty is often pulled in different directions, but she does her best to see as many kids as she can on a given day. She has many tools in her toolbox to help refocus patients’ attention from their injury, especially during bandage changes and debridements.
Those procedures involve the removal of dead, damaged or infected tissue to promote the healing of remaining tissue.
Whether it’s watching a show together on her iPad, playing a game or just holding a child’s hand and talking, Dougherty has a gift for connecting with kids, according to one parent whose daughter spent two weeks on Riley’s burn unit.
“Caitlin is the best,” said Christine Buehler. “The experience we had was so much more improved just by her participation in Sara’s healing.”
Sara, now 13, was injured last June when boiling water splashed on her stomach and back as she was cooking macaroni and cheese at her family’s home in Bloomington.
The hospital stay and the treatments took a toll on her mom and dad, but Sara kept her cool.
“I think we were maybe more overwhelmed than Sara was,” Christine said.
It helped that the eighth-grader connected so easily with Dougherty, whom she described as “nice, kind and funny.”
“She made me feel comfortable during the debridements when I was feeling very strange and uncomfortable,” Sara told her mom.
The Buehlers were present during their daughter’s debridements and recall how Dougherty brought a “calm and reassuring presence” to each situation.
“She was almost like a friend to Sara. She was very real and genuine in how she talked to her.”
In the end, she said, “We feel that Caitlin was instrumental in our daughter’s healing and her well-being. She allowed the medical providers to do their jobs more effectively because Sara was occupied,” Buehler said. “They worked so well as a team.”
That’s what Dougherty loves about her unit. She might not be treating a patient’s physical injuries, but she is a valuable member of the team.
“The burn unit is smaller, and we are really close,” she said. “People are great at understanding how everyone’s role is important to the child. They call me appropriately to help with procedural support, but also emotional support.”
Occasionally, Dougherty cares for kids who are hospitalized for reasons other than burns, including one young man named Leo Torres. The bright and polite 10-year-old, who was recovering from an emergency surgery, was delighted when Dougherty surprised him with collectible Fortnite figures donated to the Riley Cheer Guild.
He talked about how she helped him prepare for surgery.
“She showed me a video about what I would see in surgery, and she let me decorate my mask. When I told her I was bored, she told me there was an Xbox. We watched movies, and today she found these Fortnite action figures,” Leo said, before turning to Dougherty to say, “I really want to thank you for helping me.”
“HOW DID I MAKE A DIFFERENCE?”
Patients like Leo melt Dougherty’s heart and make her think of her own kids at home.
She carries them with her to work every day in the form of a tattoo on her right arm. The images of a fox (her son’s middle name) and a lark (her daughter’s middle name) remind her of her blessings, especially when sadness creeps into her day.
“We’ve had some really sad cases over the years,” she said. “There are kids I wonder how they’re doing, but luckily I get to do burn camp, so I get to see a lot of kids outside the hospital. It’s wonderful to see them thriving.”
Thriving is just what Sara Buehler is doing today, according to her mom. Since her discharge, she has returned to the outpatient burn clinic at Riley every three months, but she is nearing the end of those visits. Meanwhile, she has resumed participation in swim club, cross country and track.
“So many people from our time at Riley stand out,” Christine said (including the nurses and Sara’s surgeon, Dr. Brett Hartman), “but Caitlin will remain in the forefront of our memories because she was such a good friend to Sara during all of it.”
Dougherty, whose husband, Sam, is a firefighter, is coming off the past two years of the pandemic maybe more than a little exhausted but also inspired by her healthcare colleagues.
“I feel like we did a really good job holding each other up through all of it.”
When she leaves work at the end of the day, she leaves knowing that she helped someone that day, no matter how small her part might have been.
“I do feel like Child Life truly does make a difference for these patients and families, but I also constantly have to remind myself that I am only one person. There will be things I miss, opportunities to provide support that would have been beneficial that I didn’t get to do because I was doing procedures with another child,” she said.
“That part took me a while to really wrap my head around. We come in and want to do it all and be it all and help every family, and that’s just not possible. So, I focus on what did I do today and how did I make a difference in the time that I had?”
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org