NICU Nurse Was a Preemie

Elizabeth Wertz, a NICU nurse and clinical educator at IU Health North started life in a NICU. Now she’s expecting her first child and says she tries to relate to what it’s like to be a parent or patient on the other side of the isolette.

Twenty-six weeks. That’s when Elizabeth Wertz and her twin sister Jennifer decided to enter the world. 

“I was in the NICU for a couple months. My twin sister passed at two days old. There wasn’t as much NICU technology back then and it was rare that I survived at 26 weeks. Now lots of 26-weekers survive even with challenges,” said Wertz. The reality of those challenges is something she faces daily as a nurse and clinical educator at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health North.

When her parents Lou and Judy Lenzi raced to the hospital there was no warning. It just happened early. They were living in New York at the time. “We never figured out why. There were no risk factors,” said Wertz. “Mom went into pre-term labor, they put her in an ambulance and shipped her to the closest hospital.”

Wertz was only intubated for a week – somewhat unusual for a preemie so young. “I have a little chest tube scar but for me I was lucky. I got to go home at 34 weeks. I did pretty well for a NICU baby in 1985.” Her parents documented the journey with a series of photos – treasured by Wertz even more today as a NICU nurse and a newly expectant mother. She and her husband John are expecting their first child in October.

“People not familiar with NICU say it must be tough. It can be tough. It has its moments but it is also very rewarding. Every day is potentially the worst day of someone’s life even if their child will be OK, but we also get to see kiddos when mom gets to hold them for the first time or they take a bottle for the first time or when they get to go home.”

The experience is one that Wertz would never have guessed as a career choice years ago.

“Honestly, never in a million years did I think I’d become a nurse. I didn’t like shots and hospitals,” said Wertz, who attended Purdue University. While an undergraduate in neurobiology and physiology with a concentration in research, she took a night class to become an EMT. She loved the experience so much that she put in extra hours to learn more about patient care. Shortly after graduation, she enrolled in the accelerated nursing program at IUPUI and shadowed a NICU nurse.

“I loved the combination of ICU and helping these little newborns thrive. I immediately started wondering what I needed to do to be hired as a student nurse.” She was so sure of herself that she walked right up and knocked on the door of the manager at Methodist Hospital’s NICU and was hired shortly afterward. After taking her first nursing job at Methodist, she later went to Riley to work in NICU, picked up shifts with LifeLine, and worked in the Riley PICU. She started at IU Health North in the NICU three years ago. Last May she became a clinical educator and is in graduate school studying to become a pediatric Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS).

Last year, she was back in New York and returned to the hospital where she was born to meet some of the nurses who cared for her. And again at a nursing conference she met other nurses who cared for her.

“The nurses and doctors are a big reason I am here now,” said Wertz. “When I have patients and their families in the NICU, I know that I didn’t know what my parents experienced, but I do know everything we do, affects those babies for the rest of their lives – from dimming the lights, to how we touch and turn them. Part of what we’re here for is to teach parents who have never had a preemie how to care for their baby, and I always keep that in mind.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

Patient Running the Mini Thanks to Worried Doctor Who Wouldn’t Give Up

Julie LaFore thought she was over cancer after successful treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma in 1996. She was used to celebrating all-clear checkups with oncologists as she relocated to Chicago and Wisconsin.

When she moved to Indianapolis, her doctor recommended Sead Beganovic, MD, of Indiana University Health Central Indiana Cancer Centers. With Beganovic, the all-clears continued—patient and doctor even celebrated her 21 years cancer-free with a glass of milk for the 2017 #winnersdrinkmilk campaign.

At her April 2017 check-in, Beganovic discovered LaFore was slightly anemic and ordered an ultrasound on a Thursday morning. His office called LaFore that afternoon and said, “Go to the ER at Methodist immediately. You have a mass in your inferior vena cava.” 

After an MRI and a biopsy done through the jugular vein, LaFore was told the mass was a blood clot. She was treated with blood thinners during a week in the hospital, but Beganovic wasn’t convinced. He ordered a PET scan, which showed a low level of cancer activity. “It wasn’t high,” LaFore said, “but Dr. B was worried.”

She had completed the 500 Festival Miler Series in preparation to run the 2017 Mini-Marathon, but deferred her entry.

Beganovic suggested that LaFore have a second biopsy, this one through the groin to test a different side of the mass. That biopsy confirmed Beganovic’s suspicions. It found leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that can occur inside blood vessels.

LaFore was referred to Daniel Rushing, MD of IU Health Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center for chemotherapy to reduce and contain the sarcoma. “They hit it hard,” LaFore said. “I had inpatient stays in July and August.” In October, she had surgery to remove the piece of vein containing the sarcoma and the blood clot encasing it.

And this week, she’s running the Mini-Marathon again.

“Dr. B just wasn’t going to let it go,” LaFore said. “My primary care doctor told me to hug Dr. Beganovic, and at my consult, Dr. Rushing said, ‘Someone was watching over you, my friend.’ Still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”

LaFore has demonstrated her gratitude with a gift to the Simon Cancer Center. To learn how you can support the work of dedicated physicians, visit iuhealthfoundation.org.

Marathon Runner: “Breast Cancer Won’t Win This Race”

Noblesville resident Charlene “Char” Cooper, who is battling breast cancer, came in first in her age group in last year’s Indianapolis’ OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini Marathon. She’ll be back at it this year – not missing a day of practice during chemotherapy treatments

Charlene “Char” Cooper wears a tiny silver bar on a chain around her neck. The bar is engraved with the Roman numerals “XXVI.II.” The necklace was a gift from her daughter after Cooper completed her first Boston Marathon – 26.2 miles – three years ago.

She was in training for the 2018 Boston Marathon this year when she got the news. She was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I don’t think I ever asked ‘why me’ because I could just as easily have asked ‘why not me?’” said Cooper, 67. “I was reading ‘The Book of Joy’ recently and it said ‘when bad things happen you can become embittered or ennobled.’ I choose to be ennobled.”

In addition to the silver necklace, Cooper wears a baseball cap over her bald head and a pink bracelet around her wrist that reads: “#CharStrong.”

Both remind her of her breast cancer diagnosis. The bracelet was a gift from a group of female runners ranging in age from 26-67 who Cooper calls her “sweat sisters.” Having met one of the women in the airport on her way to the Boston Marathon last year, the close-knit group race together and have supported Cooper during her journey with breast cancer.

As she shows several pictures of races, Cooper laughs at one where a muscular male runner trails her petite frame. “It reminds me that no matter how big or strong cancer thinks it is, beating it depends on a magic combination of a great medical team, amazing support from my incredible family and friends, a strong faith, a positive attitude and running.”

On Saturday, May 5 Cooper will return to the starting line for what will be her 19th running of the Indianapolis Mini Marathon. She finished as the first place winner in her age group in last year’s race. This year she has decided to scale back to run the 5K due to her cancer treatment schedule and so she can conserve her energy to run a relay with her sweat sisters the following day.

Married to her husband Walt for almost 45 years, Cooper is the mother to three children – sons Walt and Mark Cooper and daughter Abby Santurbane – and the grandmother to four.

“I tell my grandkids ‘you can do hard things. Now it’s time for “Gram to do hard things,” says Cooper.

In 1995 she founded Cable Tie Express, an industrial distribution company that sells zip ties. That same year she ran her first half marathon. About nine years ago she began running competitively.

On November 30, 2017 she retired from her company – about the same time she discovered a lump in her breast. Four days after her retirement, a biopsy confirmed that she has breast cancer. Another picture serves as a memory of that news.

“My daughter, also a runner was six months pregnant. We had successfully ascended the Manitou Springs Incline in Colorado, feeling on top of the world when the day turned from one of the true highs to what could have been a very big low with my news,” said Cooper. “The news was particularly surprising because I don’t have one bit of cancer in my family, no health issues and I live a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition and exercise. It just shows cancer does not discriminate.”

But the runner’s high wasn’t going to let Cooper slip into low places.

Working with a team of medical care providers that include IU Health hematology/oncology specialist Dr. Tarah Ballinger, Cooper began a full treatment plan with six rounds of chemo every three weeks.

“Char is undergoing a difficult chemotherapy regimen that contains four drugs and is given for 18 weeks prior to surgery.  She made a goal to not let chemotherapy affect her running plans,” said Dr. Ballinger. “I am convinced Char’s active lifestyle, relentlessly positive attitude, and support system she has through running have allowed her to handle a very difficult chemotherapy regimen so successfully.  So many of the qualities important for training are important for the cancer journey – goal-setting, determination, strength, positive thinking – and Char embodies all of that.”

In fact, she had just finished her second treatment when Cooper completed a 10K with her son and 16 days after infusion, she completed the Carmel Half Marathon placing second in her age group. Working with trainer Matt Ebersole Cooper of Personal Best Training, she has continued to run about 30 miles a week and will run both the Indianapolis Mini Marathon and the Cincinnati Flying Pig in the same weekend with her sweat sisters at her side.

Her coach’s mantra has become her mantra: “There are No Deals, Run the Miles – or with Cancer, Power Through the Treatments.”

She was sidelined from this year’s Boston Marathon due to travel restrictions related to her treatment. And she’s counting down the days she gets the green light to make the trek to Colorado to see her newest grandbaby. Other than that, she says her running goals are simple – she wants to run the 2019 New York City Marathon cancer free and return to the Boston Marathon line up in 2020 and 2021. 

“My coach always says ‘the hard things we choose to do (like running) make most things seem easy and the impossible things (like beating cancer) possible.’ It’s true, this has been a curve ball but there has also been a lot of good that has come out of it. I tell my family and friends to hold tight to those they love, share kindness, forgiveness and goodness with others, trust in God and celebrate each mile of life’s journey.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

Transplant Patient A Long Way From Home

Jena Watson is no stranger to patients and caregivers on the fourth floor of University Hospital. She is known as a social butterfly – always working to brighten someone else’s day.

At first glance, a passerby might mistake Jena Watson as a visitor on her hospital floor. She is headed to the laundry facility to flip a load and then she’s off to work a puzzle before heading to physical therapy. In between stops, she visits with nurses and patients and pops her head around a corner to greet a housekeeping employee tidying a room. She knows them all by name.

Watson is no stranger to folks around the transplant unit.

A resident of Mississippi, Watson greets each hospital acquaintance with a smile and a distinct southern drawl that warms a room. She first came to IU Health in 2013, a candidate for an intestinal transplant.

“I asked my surgeon in Mississippi ‘if I were your mother, your sister or your wife, where would you go for a transplant? He said, ‘do you have relatives in Indiana?’ I told him, ‘I’m not looking for the cheapest gas. I want to go where they know what they’re doing,’” said Watson, a patient of Dr. Richard Mangus. She was transported more than 10 hours by ambulance, was stabilized and underwent multivisceral transplantation on a Tuesday in November of 2013.

“I was in ICU on Wednesday and Thursday, was in my own room on Friday and by Saturday I was washing my hair,” said Watson, 59. Her body sprung back from the transplant but she developed other issues and remained in Indiana for two years close to her practitioners. In December of 2015, she returned to Mississippi, hoping to continue her life as an art instructor. But when her kidneys began failing two years later, she returned to Indiana. She was readmitted to University Hospital in December and is undergoing dialysis three days a week.   

The only child of a cattle farmer, Watson says her hardships have made her rely on faith. Her father passed three years ago and her mother was murdered leaving Sunday church services. She’s raised seven children – including two foster children, and lost one child prematurely. She’s been divorced twice and lives alone in her Mississippi home.

“I know that my time here is meant to help others, to brighten someone else’s day,” said Watson. It’s not unusual for her to bake cookies as part of her occupational therapy and share them with staff. And some days she just gets a nod and knows there’s a patient who needs a little pep talk or some cheer. “It’s the little things that make the world of difference,” she said.

“I wouldn’t want go through all of the pain, uncertainty, and fear again but I also wouldn’t take anything for it. I know I’m here for a purpose. This is an amazingly compassionate, caring hospital and I’m just thankful to be alive.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

Brain Bleeding? Blood Clot Causing Stroke? You’ll Want To Come To Methodist

A neurology team full of experts will be at your bedside in 15 minutes or less. IU Health Methodist Hospital is the only in the state certified as a comprehensive stroke center, the highest level of acute care for treating strokes.  

An acute stroke team is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and will be at the bedside of a stroke patient within 15 minutes, usually less.

Round the clock, there are neurointerventionists, neuroradiologists, neurologists and a neurosurgeon.

There are dedicated neuro intensive care beds for complex stroke patients and extensive diagnostic testing capabilities always at the ready.

Not to mention, IU Health recently launched a Mobile Stroke Unit that will rush to the scene of patients having strokes and treat them on the spot. Read more here. 

Yes. If you’re having a stroke, IU Health Methodist Hospital is the place you’ll want to be. It is the only hospital in the state certified as a Comprehensive Stroke Center by The Joint Commission, in conjunction with the American Heart Association.

This year marks Methodist’s fourth year operating at the top level of stroke care in the nation. There are three other levels of certifications below a Comprehensive Stroke Center.

What it means for patients, in the simplest of terms, is better medical outcomes.  

“With a stroke, you come in and we want to save brain cells,” says Georgann Adams, CNS, IU Health’s stroke team program coordinator. “So, you want systems in place to move in rapid fashion.”

Methodist has those systems in place, meeting and, in many cases, exceeding the requirements set for certification.

“We treat the hemorrhagic stroke and ischemic stroke and everything in between,” Adams says. 

A hemorrhagic stroke is either a brain aneurysm burst or a weakened blood vessel leak. Blood spills into or around the brain, creating swelling and pressure. That damages cells and tissue in the brain.  

An ischemic stroke can be divided into two main types: thrombotic and embolic. An embolic stroke occurs when a blood clot forms somewhere else in the body, then breaks loose and travels to the brain through the bloodstream. The clot lodges in a blood vessel and blocks the flow of blood. A thrombotic stroke is when diseased or damaged cerebral arteries become blocked by the formation of a blood clot within the brain.

The Scoop On Methodist’s Comprehensive Stroke Center

Treatment capabilities: IV thrombolytics; endovascular therapy; microsurgical neurovascular clipping of aneurysms; neuroendovascular coiling of aneurysms; stenting of extracranial carotid arteries; and carotid endarterectomy.

Program medical director: Has extensive expertise and available 24/7.

Acute stroke team: Available 24/7, at bedside within 15 minutes.

Emergency medical services collaboration: Access to protocols used by EMS, routing plans and records from transfer.

Stroke unit: Dedicated neuro intensive care beds for complex stroke patients available 24/7; on-site neurointensivist coverage 24/7.

Initial assessment of patient: Emergency department physician.

Diagnostic testing capabilities: CT, MRI, labs, CTA, MRA, catheter angiography 24/7; other cranial and carotid duplex ultrasound, TEE, TTE as indicated.

Neurologist accessibility: Meets concurrently emergent needs of multiple complex stroke patients; written call schedule for attending physicians providing availability 24/7.

Other key factors in being a Comprehensive Stroke Center include transfer protocols, staff stroke education, providing educational opportunities, clinical performance measures, patient-centered research and guidelines.

“The most exciting thing in stroke is new ways to treat people and highly effective ways to help people,” says Jason Mackey, M.D., an IU Health neurologist. “Being a Comprehensive Stroke Center puts us at the forefront of that.”

— By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.

   Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.

Sister Support For Breast Cancer Patient

She thought it was just a routine mammogram. That’s how Mary Cathleen “Cathy” Iacobucci described her annual screening in January.

“My dad was ill and until he passed, I pushed my mammogram back. I’m glad now that I scheduled it when I did. The earlier it is diagnosed, the better the chances of effective treatment,” said Iacobucci, 53, of Fishers. Shortly after the screening, she got a call for a follow up mammogram and ultrasound. A biopsy was ordered and she learned she has triple negative breast cancer.

Both her mother and grandmother were diagnosed with breast cancer but not triple negative. Her mom was treated twice. Triple negative means the breast cancer cells test negative for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and HER2. About 10-20% of breast cancers — more than one out of every 10 — are found to be triple-negative. Unlike her mother and grandmother’s diagnosis, Iacobucci’s breast cancer does not respond to hormonal therapy (such as tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors) or therapies that target HER2 receptors, such as Herceptin (trastuzumab). However, other medicines can be used to treat triple-negative breast cancer. Under the care of Dr. Kathy Miller, Iacobucci is undergoing a chemotherapy regime known as AC followed by Taxol.

“I’ve had typical side effects but overall I’m doing good. The hardest side effect was hair loss,” said Iacobucci, who was diagnosed at Stage I.

On a recent visit to IU Health Simon Cancer Center, her sister, Peggy Sullivan, accompanied Iacobucci. Just 18 months apart, the two grew up on the west side of Cincinnati where Sullivan still calls home.

“We worked together in our father’s grocery story and played sports together,” said Sullivan. “We were the maid of honor in each other’s weddings and our kids are about the same age,” added Iacobucci, who works as a controller for Pondurance, a technology company in downtown Indy who has supported her through treatment. She is married to Tony Iacobucci and the mother three children.

Sullivan had planned to make dinner for her sister’s family and brought a few special desserts from the Cincinnati restaurant where she works. Mostly, she drove to Indianapolis to learn more about her sister’s diagnosis and treatment.

“It can be scary to read about breast cancer but I have been assured the tumor is shrinking so the treatment is working,” said Iacobucci. “As much of a big fat bummer as this is, the nurses and staff have made it as pleasant as possible.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

Baby Can’t Wait: He’s Delivered In Palm Tree Lobby At Methodist

The quick action of IU Health police officers made for a smooth and safe delivery of a beautiful, bouncing baby boy – who chose to come pretty darn fast.

It was about 9 p.m. when police officer Latrice Johnson heard a call come over her radio. A woman was in the B lobby of IU Health Methodist Hospital and she was in labor. 

No big deal. It is a hospital, after all. And Methodist has a robust labor and delivery department.

“It’s pretty normal to hear that,” says Johnson, who has been an officer with IU Health four years. “What we want to do is make sure they are OK, get a wheelchair and wheel them up to labor and delivery — try to get them up there as soon as possible.”

So, on that night of April 10, Johnson called police officer Kris Hardiman to bring a wheelchair. But, the closer Johnson got to the woman, the more she couldn’t believe her eyes.

“I saw the baby was coming,” says Johnson, “like the baby was coming out.”

Her instincts kicked in. The woman was shaking and crying and she needed to lie down quickly. Johnson urged her to do just that. She helped her to the nearest bench, which happened to be in the waiting area of the Palm Tree lobby.

About that time, Sergeant Rex Stonecipher came rushing in. He stayed with the woman while Johnson ran up to get labor and delivery staff.

What happened next?

“Well, then the baby came,” says Sgt. Stonecipher, who helped deliver the baby boy and put him on mom’s chest. Side note: This is the third baby Stonecipher has delivered in his 13 years at IU Health. Both officers Hartiman and Jonathan Rochez were there by mom’s side, as well.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Johnson was excitedly telling the doctors and nurses in labor and delivery what was going on downstairs.

“It was so amazing how they already knew,” says Johnson, who is the mother of four children, ages 2, 5, 7 and 9. “They were on it.”

Of course, by the time the crew got downstairs, baby was already on mom’s chest.

“That was definitely one of the more heartwarming things I’ve been through,” Johnson says. “You saw how the staff cares. You saw how everybody just cares and how they sprung into action. You saw doctors and nurses and everybody come together to make sure everything was OK.”

Two weeks later, mom and baby are doing great. All four officers say that what they did wasn’t a big deal, that it’s all in a day’s work.

We say they’re wrong. Thanks to all IU Health officers for their dedication and service to our hospitals.

— By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.

   Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.

What’s Cooking? Transplant Patient’s Kitchen Therapy

Double transplant patient Sierra Fowler works with occupational therapists to build her strength and basic care skills so she can live independently – part of that means cooking in the kitchen at University Hospital.

It may seem like a simple task to some but for Sierra Fowler, 20, every movement is performed with effort. She was recently hospitalized with an infection and is retraining her body to perform everyday routines. As part of that retraining she is cooking lunch in a kitchen at IU Health University Hospital.

April is Occupational Therapy Month, a time to recognize practitioners who help patients regain that independence that Fowler is seeking. At University Hospital that team includes Lauren Busby, Greta Slabach, and Emily Winslow.

“Often the things people take for granted – the things we do every day is what we focus on. It’s important to me to help them regain that independence. We do a lot of simulated tasks that help them focus on reaching and balance,” said Busby.

Working with an interdisciplinary team of doctors, nurses, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, social workers and other clinicians, occupational therapists help the patient set goals toward maintaining a healthy active lifestyle.

“Basically, we want the patient to be safe at home,” said Slabach.

Born with polycystic kidney disease, Fowler of Evansville was two when she received a new kidney from her mother. Eight years later she received a liver transplant. When she was stricken with chicken pox, the organs began to fail. Fowler received a second kidney and liver transplant last November under the care of transplant surgeons Drs. Chandrashekhar Kubal and William Goggins.

During her recent hospital stay, Fowler focused on building her strength and endurance. Occupational therapists helped her with that goal. That included such tasks as bathing, dressing, and cleaning.

For Fowler, it also meant spending time in the kitchen, a place that gives her comfort and consistency. She spent years watching her grandfather, a chef; deliver his specialties to the table. One of her favorites was peach cobbler.

As she boiled water on the stovetop to make noodles, Fowler listened to instructions from Winslow. When the pot was too heavy for Fowler to lift, Winslow encouraged her to adapt by sliding the pot. They talked about Fowler’s other favorite activities – drawing and listening to music, and her plans when she leaves the hospital.

“With basic self care we talk a lot about having a daily schedule,” said Winslow. She talked to Fowler about grocery shopping and asked her if she tired easily.

“I really want to do things at home on my own but sometimes I’m afraid,” said Fowler. “I want to get strong enough that I can wash my own hair and ride my bike around the block.”For today, she’s working on making a light lunch – noodles with sauce.

“Maybe soon I’ll be able to make Papaw’s peach cobbler.”

–By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

LifeLine Nurse With a Father’s Heart

When he rocked her, the tiny girl slipped her hand behind his back and held it there while he sang lullabies. She eventually drifted off to sleep.

CJ Whitehead thinks back to that nightly routine now and understands why the little girl’s hand was on his back. She was feeling the music as it vibrated through her daddy’s body.

Whitehead, 35, grew up just outside of Vincennes, In. and attended nearby Indiana State University with a plan to study pre-med. Instead, he ended up with a degree in English, but took an EMT class along the way, worked for a local ambulance company and fell in love with the fast-pace of first response. He eventually went on to study paramedic science and then completed his nursing degree.

He started working at IU Health Methodist Hospital six years ago in cardiovascular critical care and was a clinician with Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) that provides prolonged cardiac and respiratory support to patients with heart and lung conditions.

“I liked the intensity and critical thinking that went with my role helping severely ill patients heal,” said Whitehead. To this day, he remembers one of his Methodist patients and his healing as a sign of hope for the sickest of the sick.

Like Whitehead, the patient was in his mid-30s, and a dad who had open-heart surgery and was on ECMO for months. “No one thought he’d make it but not only did he survive, it’s been almost three years and he’s living life to the fullest,” said Whitehead. 

Bedside nursing taught him long-term patient care, but Whiteside said his ultimate goal was to join the LifeLine team.

“When I went to nursing school I knew this is where I wanted to end up. I love being a paramedic and I went to nursing school with the idea of staying involved in EMS and transport. A lot of decisions we make we make on our own during transport. It’s the best of both worlds being a paramedic and a nurse,” said Whitehead who joined LifeLine two years ago.

In October of 2016, he and his wife of nine years, Molly realized another dream. They adopted a little girl from China.

Whitehead served two mission trips to Haiti and after seeing the challenges facing parents, he was sold on international adoption. His wife also felt the tug to adopt.

They started paperwork in January of 2014 and two years later traveled to Jinan, the capital of eastern China’s Shandong province. When they first met their 21-month-old daughter the Whitehead’s knew she was developmentally delayed.

“We were told she was quiet and shy,” said Whitehead. “She was one of 600 kids in her orphanage and one of 15 children – ages 18 months to three and half years – in her playroom with one adult to watch over them.”

At first they thought her lack of eye contact, her unresponsiveness to sound was a coping mechanism, a result of so little one-on-one attention. So they brought her home and prepared to shower her with love. They named their little girl Madeleine Mingxi – Mingxi means “little stream that turns into a roaring river.”

“We learned that the best way to help her adjust is to take her back to infancy and help her experience things that she may have missed out on in the orphanage so I began rocking her to sleep and singing lullabies,” said Whitehead.

He didn’t know then that his daughter couldn’t hear his voice.

Working with doctors at Riley Hospital for Children, the Whiteheads learned last June that little Madeleine was Deaf.

“I was devastated but on the way home from the hospital my wife started researching American Sign Language classes and we set our minds on doing whatever it takes,” said Whitehead.

In November Madeleine was introduced to sound through Cochlear implants, electronic medical devices with 22 electrodes on each side of her head that interpret pitches and tones. At the age of 3, Madeleine is also enrolled in a preschool that works specifically with Deaf children with Cochlear implants.

“They are teaching her to process sound and we are working on listening skills,” said Whitehead. “She is mastering six basic sounds and is progressing toward speaking.” The couple works with a Deaf mentor to help them improve their sign language and their hope is that Madeleine will be bilingual.

“It’s amazing how far she’s come,” said Whitehead. “She was once described as ‘quiet’ and ‘shy’ but now she is curious and fearless.”

As he talks, Whitehead’s daughter steps on her tiptoes trying to look out a window. The sound of an engine is heard in the distance and she begins making the sign for a “train.”

She likes Barbie, Mr. Rogers, Toy Story and playing on slides.

“When we first adopted her we thought we’d slipped under the radar and got a perfectly healthy child from China. Now we know the story that needs to be told is that any child you adopt internationally will have issues but it’s all manageable,” said Whitehead.

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

A Hero In The Night

Dr. Angi Fiege, a nighttime critical care physician at Methodist, sees the sickest of the sick. But saving lives for Dr. Fiege doesn’t stop at Methodist. By day, she speaks to high school and college students in a raw, emotional presentation about her daughter, Rachael, who died five years ago when she fell down a flight of stairs at Indiana University. “You look at a tragedy like this and there are two ways you can do it,” Dr. Fiege says. “You can deal with it or you can crumble.”

She whisks past the dark hospital rooms, subtle waves of light sweeping across her face, light that seeps into those sacred places where life wavers. Where death lurks. 

She holds a 90-year-old woman’s hand in the middle of the night as she dies.

She stares at the swollen, tired face of an intubated young man.

She looks down.

And when Angi Fiege looks down, it is always there. The reminder. They are there — three letters written on the white tips of her black Converse sneakers: RLF. Rachael Leigh Fiege.

The tears could pour out if she let them, dropping into the shadows that cast themselves into the night at IU Health Methodist Hospital. 

This night and every night the past five years is just like the night Dr. Fiege’s world changed forever.

This night could be that night. But it isn’t.

And Dr. Fiege is grateful, at least, for that.

***

It was August of 2013 and Dr. Fiege had finished her shift at Methodist. She was feeling especially happy.

She’d been texting her daughter, Rachael, throughout the night. Rachael was giddy. She was a freshman at Indiana University and had just landed on the Bloomington campus. She was ready to study nursing, ready to follow in her mom’s medical footsteps.  

They would be big footsteps to traipse behind.

Dr. Fiege is a physician in critical care and emergency medicine – seeing the sickest of the sick that come into Methodist. She works on professional racing circuits. Last April, she was named medical director of NASCAR’s safety team. She’s a fixture at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

She is that hero mom, the kind a young woman could really look up to. And Rachael was a daughter, a soccer player, a fun-loving, beautiful woman, Dr. Fiege looked up to, too. 

And so, as she left after that August night shift, Dr. Fiege was hoping to hear from Rachael.

Instead, a call came from a strange Bloomington number. It was the hospital, the emergency room. They had Rachael. Dr. Fiege needed to get there.

Dr. Fiege asked what had happened. No one would tell her.  

But, Dr. Fiege knew what to ask. Is she on a ventilator? Yes. Did she go into cardiac arrest? Yes.

“At that point in time,” Dr. Fiege says, “that’s all I needed to know.”

***

Rachael’s smiling face is projected onto a massive screen inside Cathedral High School. Dr. Fiege is a silhouette in its light. 

It’s Tuesday morning. Dr. Fiege has just spent a weekend at a race, rushing home to take a shift saving lives. This time, though, it’s not at Methodist.

The presentation is called Rachael’s First Week. It’s raw and heartbreaking.

It’s supposed to be.

This is Dr. Fiege’s way of making something good out of something devastating.

“You look at a tragedy like this and there are two ways you can do it,” she says. “You can deal with it or you can crumble.”

Dr. Fiege chose not to crumble. She chose to tell the story of her daughter’s death to high school seniors and college freshman across the state.

She chose to teach them to save lives.

Rachael was at a party, doing what a lot of young adults new to college do. She was at a house with friends she knew. There was drinking.   

She slipped and fell down a flight of stairs. But then Rachael stood up. Her friends helped her back up the stairs and onto a couch. They checked on her throughout the night.

They didn’t know Rachael’s brain was bleeding. By the time her friends realized something was wrong and called, it was too late.

Dr. Fiege has looked at Rachael’s CT scan. There were no fatal injuries to her head. If someone had called immediately, Rachael would be alive.

Rachael’s older brother, Jeremy, is part of the presentation. He talks about Indiana’s Lifeline law. It allows underage drinkers to call 911 – to report an injury – without any repercussion. 

Dr. Fiege wants these kids to know that it’s OK to call. They won’t get in trouble. The presentation warns of the dangers of drinking, dangerous signs to look for and other trends that plague this demographic. Depression. Drugs. Suicide. Risky behavior.

“I see your beautiful faces and I know you’re getting ready to go out into this world. There are a lot of dangers out there. As a parent, I’ve experienced the worst of it,” Dr. Fiege told Cathedral students this week. “I also know that you guys are well-equipped, you can use your instincts and you’ll do great.”

Dr. Fiege has something to give to them. It’s a medallion, like the one she wears around her neck, like the ones they handed out at Rachael’s funeral.

“I want you to think about this being a circle, that you want to close the loop when somebody gets into trouble,” she says. “Please take this, stick it in your pocket, give it a rub every now and then. When you’re out at a party, think about what we talked about today. Remember Rachael. Remember our story.”

***

Dr. Fiege didn’t set out to be a doctor. She started on an ambulance. But as she worked there, she wanted more. So, she went to nursing school.

She started doing flight nursing and loved it. But after 10 years, she wanted more. She needed to know more. Medical school it would be.

This year marks 32 years working at Methodist.

“I am totally a Methodist girl,” Dr. Fiege says. “I am dyed in the wool Methodist.”

She is a beloved doctor inside the hospital. She is a mother figure to the new nurses – her “baby nurses.” She is a mentor to up and coming physicians.

Yet, she admires the people she works with immensely.

“This is such a hard job,” she says. “All these people on the night shift, they are the heroes.”

Every night is different. One might be quiet and calm. The next might be chaotic and unpredictable.

Dr. Fiege is the calm amid the chaos.

“She is just the most amazing person ever,” says Jennifer Lommel, M.D., an emergency medicine resident who works with Dr. Fiege and is part of the Rachael’s First Week presentation.

Dr. Lommel has, time and time again, watched Dr. Fiege running on empty to make sure she is everywhere she needs to be. She has never missed a Rachael’s First Week in its four years of existence.

“It comes from her desire,” says Katie Byrd, M.D., an emergency medicine resident and Rachael’s First Week presenter. “If she can help prevent this from happening to one other person, that will be worth it to her.”

***

There was never any anger, never any blame. Of course, Dr. Fiege wishes those kids at the party would have known to call 911.

But she told the police – even as she was driving down to Bloomington that night, even before she knew exactly what had happened — that she didn’t want those kids arrested. 

“I don’t think anybody did anything wrong at that party other than they were ignorant of what to do,” she says. “They were guilty by omission as opposed to commission.”

Dr. Fiege knows those kids loved Rachael. So many people loved Rachael. More than 1,000 people came to her funeral. Money poured in.

The Fieges didn’t know what to do with the money, so they held off. A few months later, they were urged to come up with an idea. People suggested a scholarship in Rachael’s name, maybe a gym.

But that didn’t represent what Rachael was, Dr. Fiege says.

“If we are going to make a legacy contribution, let’s do something that would embody Rachael,” she says.

By May, just nine months after Rachael’s death, the presentation was up and running.

Dr. Fiege still gets choked up when she talks about Rachael. There is nothing worse than losing a child, she says. And she has seen plenty of death.

“There’s always the saying, ‘Rachael wouldn’t want you to be sad,’” Dr. Fiege says. “Well, to me, that’s not something that should ever be said. That may be true, but it doesn’t address the issue. It’s finding the inner strength to deal with it.”

Dr. Fiege has done that. And along the way, she has become a hero to so many.

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