Norton Children’s nurse spends 3 decades helping heart patients

Mary Jo McIver does more than mend hearts; she’s the heart of the Norton Children’s Hospital surgical cardiovascular team.

Norton Children’s Heart Institute

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It’s not a job; it’s a passion spanning 33 years. During that time, Mary Jo McIver has helped save the lives of countless heart patients undergoing heart surgery. 

“I love hearts,” she said.

Mary Jo began her career as a nurse’s aide at Norton Hospital while in nursing school. Even before graduating in 1991, she knew she wanted to make a difference after watching her father go through intensive care years earlier.

“When I was 15, he wound up on a ventilator in intensive care at a hospital,” Mary Jo said. “Nobody ever explained what anything was. It was terrifying to see. And I remember just holding his toe, afraid to touch anything because of all the machines, all the tubes.”

Today, as an assistant nurse manager with Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the University of Louisville School of Medicine, she works to put families and patients at ease before and after surgery. Her goal is to make the operating room less scary than it may feel at first.

She’s good at relating to her patients.

“The little boys who are at the point where they play video games, I’m like, ‘Oh, look at my monitor. You’re going to put mountains on my monitor, and you’re going to get a score. Let’s see what your score is,’” Mary Jo said. “It’s the oxygen probe, and the little humps start, and usually it’s like, 99, you know, or 100. And I’m like, ‘Oh, you got my high score for the day.’”

Related: Deborah J. Kozik, D.O., talks about her lifesaving work with pediatric heart transplant patients

An inspiration to other nurses

It’s not only Mary Jo’s longevity that impresses people around her, but also her compassion for her patients and fellow staff.

“She goes above and beyond for our heart team,” said Vanessa Bobblett, a surgical technologist at Norton Children’s Hospital. “Doesn’t matter what role. She will run to the pharmacy or to the blood bank and get stuff that we need. Anybody who comes through this door, Mary Jo is willing to help you.”

Some say Mary Jo is the heart of the team.

“Mary Jo is one of the reasons why I stay on the heart team,” Vanessa said.

Highs and lows of being a nurse

Over her 30-plus years, Mary Jo has seen it all. She’s celebrated many patients going on to live happy, healthy lives. But there also are the hard days. She’s been involved in nearly 100 heart transplants, meaning someone had to give the gift of life by being an organ donor.

“Reading a letter from the parents of a young donor, I would just stand there and cry,” she said. “And then, when they put the new heart in, and then when it warms up, and it starts to beat. I mean, it’s amazing. It’s just a different world back here.”

And Mary Jo has a hand — and her heart — in all of it.

“I really love what I do,” she said. “There’s no doubt I chose the right career.”