Meet Dr. Elaine Cox: Your support is “mission critical”

Dr. Elaine Cox Full Size Blog Image 05.29.2020

Do you know how to smile with your eyes?

Elaine Cox, M.D., says that skill has become more important than ever at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. The health care team wants patients, families and colleagues to see warmth and compassion in spite of their ever-present masks.

With decades of service as an infectious disease physician under her belt, Dr. Cox now serves as Chief Medical Officer for Riley Children’s Health. She works with the Riley leadership team to manage some of the most critical decisions necessary during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Dr. Cox shared how Riley Hospital is adapting to life during COVID-19, and how gifts from donors like you are helping.

Q: Your background is in infectious disease, so a pandemic was likely something you had thought about more than most of us. Did you ever imagine a situation like this?

A: As an infectious disease doctor, you know about the history of pandemics and you have the vocabulary, but a true pandemic hasn’t happened in our lifetime. I think we all knew it was coming and it was going to hit us very hard. We were able to take some things we have learned from flu season and expand upon them. What is striking now is the duration. During flu season, we don’t see the illness at a raging peak for weeks upon weeks. The sustainment of this has been surprising to me. It has been so interesting for us as a society. This pandemic has shown us how much freedom of activity we’re used to having, and how challenging it is to have it curtailed suddenly by something we can’t control.

Q: How has it been for you to serve in an administrative role rather than a direct patient care role during this time?

A: I have kind of a fondness for emergency management, and what I’m finding is that I sometimes feel guilty because my partners, like Dr. Christenson, are out on the frontline. For a few weeks, I felt like I should be right in there treating patients. I felt like I was on the bench while they were in the game. But everybody in their role has just performed beautifully.

Q: What are the major adjustments Riley has made during this crisis?

A: I think the biggest thing has been decreasing the numbers of people who are engaging in the hospital in any way. We initially needed to turn down the volume of surgical procedure and reduce the number of patients seen in clinics. There are physical barriers between us and patients and families, like plexiglass in front of the registrar. We are all wearing masks all the time now. We have increased virtual care visits to reduce contact.

The Child Life Zone is normally where groups of children can congregate, and we stopped hosting activities there. We know play is important to how kids process the world, so the Child Life team quickly adapted and is offering new activities through our closed-circuit TV station and sending an increasing number of “Zone to Go” activity kits to children’s rooms. 

The Child Life Specialists also have found ways to support our staff. They went around to all IU Health facilities and chalked the sidewalks with encouraging messages. They started the #RileyChoosesJoy theme with rainbow paintings on the windows to build optimism. Our Riley School Program teachers have PPE (personal protective equipment) if they need to go in a room. They also started a tutoring service for our staff who are having to homeschool their children to take the edge off the stress they were feeling. 

The other group that has been interesting is our Social Work team. In times of stress, there are many needs families have that fall in their wheelhouse. Their team has adapted to do some of their work remotely and rotate who is in the hospital and who is working from home. They have figured it out and they’ve done an amazing job. 

Q: How has Riley been working with the greater IU Health system to collaborate and share resources? 

A: COVID didn’t put children in the hospital to the same degree it put adults in the hospital. During the beginning of the crisis, we moved ventilators to other hospitals, and we had some of our nurses and physicians move to the adult side of the health system. That meant we didn’t have all of our staff with us, which was an odd feeling. We also had some people shift to different units within Riley where there was higher volume, and they have had to adapt quickly. I feel like every team member has stepped up. 

Q: A very small number of Riley patients have been COVID positive. How is your team taking care of them?

A: The best practice according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is that all COVID-infected patients be cohorted together. That decreases exposure and concentrates use of PPE. It also helps hone your expertise. Because this is a disease we have never seen before, having a group of dedicated providers focused on handling COVID patients was helpful.

We made sure to quarantine any staff who thought they could have been exposed or had symptoms. With COVID positive patients, our health care team wears what we call “enhanced PPE.” That includes things like face coverings (either a face shield or goggles) and N95 respirator masks to protect everyone in the room. The good thing is for years and years, we have been doing hand washing and proper PPE at Riley. People adapted to that really well. 

Q: How is Riley research helping with the COVID-19 crisis?

A: I am proud of our commitment to research and education. At Riley, we are not just sitting back. We are getting in the fight to see how we can manage COVID. Riley is participating in all kinds of research trials and studies around COVID to help us understand antibodies and medications that help fight the illness. With the research that is happening on our campus, in the Wells Center for Pediatric Research and in the clinic, I think we’re going to add a lot to our arsenal and help the world understand so we can help our citizens.

Q: What would you like people to know about safety at Riley right now?

A: We have to make sure people understand when you are sick and you need to come to Riley Hospital, it is safe to come. We have not had any spread of COVID-19 in the hospital. We don’t want people to wait too long when they need care and then become sicker and have more suffering. It is also important to keep up with your well-child visits. We don’t want to see an outbreak of measles because people didn’t keep up with children’s vaccinations.

Q: What are the words you would use to describe Riley team members and their work during this pandemic?

A: Empowered. Optimistic. Confident. Trusting in one another. Compassionate. 

This has been a growth experience. I could not be prouder of our healthcare workers. I don’t think people always see how healthcare workers put themselves in the line of fire. During this crisis, the public has affirmed our team members in a way we haven’t seen before. 

Their purpose is to take care of patients, even when they’re scared. We take an oath that we’re going to take care of people, and we show up. 

There are many good causes we can give to. Health care is one of the most essential, foundational parts of our society to keep us well, so it is an important thing to consider. 

For people who can step up and support Riley Hospital, it’s mission-critical.

To make a gift in support of Riley, visit

Riley Blogger

The Riley Blog is written and/or edited by members of the Riley Children's Foundation Communications Staff.

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