She Relies On Their Eyes

August 03, 2017

Christa Kaeser’s profession focuses on touch. But many times, she relies on the look in her patients’ eyes.

Working with Intensive Care Patients – flat on their backs at the most vulnerable point of their lives – Kaeser’s goal is to meet them where they are. She enters a room, watches their faces, reads their vital signs and gently coaxes them to move. Flexing their arms and legs helps get the blood flowing and lifts their spirits. As she works, she asks them about their breathing and their level of pain. But some can’t offer more than the blink of an eye or a gentle squeeze of her hand. Those eyes reveal much.

“Can you lift your foot? Are you hot or cold?” she asks.

“I start off with limited movement. There’s a lot of assessment. That’s why I like working in ICU. I have to know the medicines and disease processes because my goal is to make things better not worse,” said Kaeser, who has worked at IU Health for five years.

She starts her day reviewing charts and prioritizing patient needs. Once on the floor, she talks to nurses and tries to determine the best method to help patients in their recovery process.

“Sometimes that means stretching them out so they don’t get skin break down or muscle tightness, sometimes that means exercises so they’ll get stronger and sometimes that means getting them out of bed and walking with them,” said Kaeser, who obtained her undergraduate degree from Purdue and her doctorate from IU.

She didn’t start out in physical therapy.

“I originally started in pre med thinking I wanted to be a physician but one of my classes took me through the different disciplines. When I saw how the physical therapist interacts with the patients and the physicians, I decided this would be a great way to combine my interest in sports and medicine,” said Kaeser, who lives in Brownsburg and is an avid runner.

Last September she saw a different side of physical therapy when she fractured a vertebra and spent three months working on her own recovery.

“It definitely makes me understand how frustrating it can be not being able to do the things you want to do and to have chronic pain,” said Kaeser. “Knowing what to do to address that can be empowering.”

When she works with critically ill patients, Kaeser recognizes that each patient is unique.

“The biggest challenge is balancing their medical complexities with safe rehab – making sure the benefits outweigh the risks of exercise and activity. The other challenge is educating families and medical teams that physical therapy and mobility are beneficial and safe.”

Kaeser relates a story about a severally ill patient who wanted badly to get out of bed and spend time with his family.

“He was a younger guy and was very active but was diagnosed with multiple lung problems. He needed ridiculous amounts of oxygen to breathe. He wanted to walk and I had to push myself to research and learn how I could help him accomplish that goal,” said Kaeser. “Most of my patients get better and need less and less help but in his case, he wasn’t getting better.” In the end, Kaeser worked with the nursing staff to give the man one final wish – a photo session where he was holding his children alongside his wife.

“One of the best parts of my job is that I take care of patients when they are at their most vulnerable phase and give them some control and independence in the situation,” said Kaeser. “They don’t always have control over organs failing, surgeries and what meds they need but if I tell them what exercises to do to get stronger, then they have that choice. If I can help them get medically stable then they have a better chance of going home and have a better quality of life.”

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

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