Dave Roller had a lifetime of memories flash before his eyes Wednesday afternoon at Especially Kidz.
Having spent the past 37 years working at the rehabilitation center in Shelbyville, Roller took a few moments to reflect on his career as photos of his life flashed on a flatscreen television across the room.
There was the one child who held onto his chest as he worked overnight, needing that contact. Years later, still a patient at age 36, she wanted him to pick her up, with that same need intact.
“They never forget that you loved them,” he said Wednesday at his retirement open house.
He used to rock another child while she received respiratory treatment because she struggled to breathe. She held onto his earlobe and sucked on it “like a baby bottle.”
“I mean you’d have goosebumps all over your body, but it calmed the little baby down,” he said. “So you have that bond of affection of being a parent. You’re a parent to them when their parents can’t be here.”
Roller celebrated his retirement with co-workers and families who he served over the years on Wednesday as 1960’s rock and roll music played in the background.
Roller saw himself as a caretaker of his patients, both from a medical side and a parental perspective.
About 90 percent of the parents whose child is at Especially Kidz are unable to visit, either because of distance or because it is too difficult to deal with, he said.
“It’s just very hard for people to deal with that,” he said of having a special needs child. “A lot of people just can’t or, sad to say, it’s their fault that the child is that way in the first place.”
Over 37 years, Roller has helped take care of 1,200 children. Patients come from coast to coast.
Six of the patients who were at Especially Kidz when he started are still there.
Whereas Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis costs thousands of dollars per day, the local rehab facility costs hundreds, he said.
“Our job is to give them a quality of life,” he said. “In this country, you have a right to be happy. That’s our job, is to give them a chance to try to be happy.”
Roller started working at Especially Kidz after losing a daughter from a first marriage. Before the job, he stayed at the cemetery where she was buried “around the clock,” devastated by the loss.
Then, working for Eli Lilly, he came to Especially Kidz to sit for a national board exam in occupational health. He decided to come to the center to improve his resume on pediatrics and agreed to work 1,000 hours.
After about three months, he noticed he was feeling better about himself.
“Sometimes you think you’re taking care of them, and they’re really taking care of you,” he said. “It gave me back a lot that I lost with my daughter, just to take care of them, and I’ve never left.”
Joining Especially Kidz allowed him to overcome a “very traumatic stage” in his life.
The loss of a child can tear families apart, he said.
“There’s a lot of devastating ripples that go along with losing a child, or having a disabled child, and that little child is innocent in the middle of the whole thing,” he said. “I’ve always lived my life to see her again and that’s what I intend to do. I hope she’s proud of me, and I’ve had my hands on 1,200 children trying to give them a life, and that’s what I did.”
Now he looks forward to spending time with his mother this winter sitting at the fireplace. They leave for a country music cruise in February.
When they return home, he said they will be busy growing vegetables on the family farm for senior citizens and those in the community who are in need.
He also will continue working toward creating a cemetery locally for special needs children. He is working with Greg Parks, funeral director of Murphy-Parks Funeral Home, to develop the cemetery.
While the plot of land has been purchased and the artwork has been designed, they are still looking for donations.
They are currently one-third of the way toward the $150,000 needed. Donations can be made at the funeral home and those who give will be recognized in the memorial.
Roller also encouraged residents to volunteer at Especially Kidz. The children who don’t have families able to visit need interaction, he said.