by Joelle Moran
After 12 years of watching children come into the ER at The Children’s Hospital (TCH), many with preventable injuries, Theresa Rapstine had seen enough.
Whether a child’s injury was the result of failure to be in a car seat or wear a bicycle helmet, child abuse or suffering burns, Rapstine, BSN, RN, knew there had to be a way to prevent these injuries in the first place.
“You can only see so much of that before you want to do something about keeping kids out of the hospital,” she said. “You can help one child and family at a time, and I wanted to make a bigger difference.”
Today, as director of the Kiwanis Pediatric Trauma Institute at TCH, Rapstine oversees a team whose mission is to prevent injuries and provide safety products and research related to keeping kids out of the hospital. Rapstine said 90 percent of child injuries are preventable.
The institute is a partnership of TCH and the Rocky Mountain Kiwanis District that was created in the mid-90s to prevent traumatic childhood injury through research, prevention and outreach education. The Rocky Mountain Kiwanis District serves Colorado, Wyoming and western Nebraska.
In her 12 years working for the institute, first as program manager of Injury Prevention & Outreach Education and as director since 2002, Rapstine has helped make a big difference.
In that time, she said, the institute has seen a 40 percent reduction in childhood death rates. That doesn’t necessarily point to the institute’s programs, she said, but it does show that kids are safer than they were 10 or 12 years ago.
“Theresa has been instrumental at TCH, but more importantly at the state and regional level in improving prevention and trauma care for children,” TCH CNO Kelly Johnson said. “Theresa is a very creative and energetic person that is passionate about prevention of trauma injuries to children, and this is apparent in her tireless efforts in program development and advocacy at the state and regional levels.”
But just as important as saving lives is the attention Rapstine has brought to childhood safety issues.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned in this advocacy role is that most of the time kids don’t really have a voice. So we, as parents and health care providers, need to be their voice,” Rapstine said. “Part of my love and mission in life is to advocate for kids and be their voice.”
When Rapstine first started in her advocacy role, she examined what kinds of things were injuring and killing kids. She found that improper or lack of car seat use was a huge problem. To address this she oversaw the development and implementation of the Child Passenger Safety Program at TCH.
In 2004, she led TCH and the Safe Kids Coalition to lobby the Colorado Legislature for stronger child passenger safety laws. The booster seat law requires children who weigh over 40 pounds or are at least four years old to be properly restrained in a child booster seat or with a child safety belt-positioning device. It also mandates that children ride in booster seats until they are six years old or 55 inches tall.
Looking back on her career, she knows her work on this measure made a big impact.
“We know that fewer kids died the following year than before,” she said. “I’m glad that we advocated that law to get it passed. Someone has to be the AARP for kids.”
In 2005, Rapstine took her advocacy role to a much bigger level. She took sabbatical and went on a six-month special assignment as project manager for Safe Kids Worldwide in the Asia Pacific region.
Working in China, South Korea and the Philippines, she focused on pedestrian safety issues involving children.
In China alone, she said, 85 percent of kids walk to school. And as the country becomes wealthier, motor vehicle use increases, but pedestrian safety does not as there are no sidewalks or crosswalks. To bridge this gap, Rapstine’s team worked to build community coalitions to help keep kids on the roads safely.
At home, Rapstine also lead the Denver Metro Safe Kids Coalition - part of the global effort called Safe Kids Worldwide - whose goal is to identify and prevent injuries in children ages 14 and younger.
Rapstine didn’t necessarily always have her heart set on being a nurse, but she knew she wanted kids in her life and wanted to care for them.
“The best way I knew how to do that was to be a mom or a nurse,” she said. “I never had kids of my own, but I feel like I’ve had a lot of kids I’ve taken care of.”
She started her path toward caring for children when she earned her BSN from Loretto Heights College (now part of Regis University) in Denver in 1986. During her senior year she did clinical work in the emergency room at TCH and loved working with children. She loved it so much, after graduating, she didn’t send her resume anywhere besides TCH.
“I knew the team. They challenged me and helped me learn and grow,” she said. “I only wanted to work there. I had my mind set on it that it was where I was going to work.”
Her determination paid off and she started at TCH as an ER nurse in 1986. And she’s never left. From 1991 to 1997, she was a daily charge nurse in TCH’s Level I Regional Pediatric Trauma Center, and then she started working at the trauma institute.
“I love working here. It’s a great place for kids and a great organization,” she said. “If I were a kid, this is where I would want to come.”
Rapstine said she’s so at home at The Children’s Hospital because it’s on the edge of pediatric medicine and is always striving for improvement, not just in research and care but also in making it a great place to work and a great place for families to come.
“I am never comfortable in the status quo,” she said. “I’m always striving to make it bigger and better and that just fits my personality.”