Service with heart: A pediatric transplant nurse’s story

This nurse practitioner has cared for some of the sickest kids needing heart care, seeing them go home healthier with their families. Here’s her story.

“Every child deserves a chance at life, and I feel like I was put on this earth to help them.” – Mary T. “Terri” Massey, APRN

As a nurse practitioner for Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, Mary T. “Terri” Massey, APRN, has become an invaluable force caring for the youngest and sickest heart patients.

Her journey within Norton Children’s tells a story of compassion, strength and purpose. Having been part of Norton Children’s since 1986, she has witnessed the health system’s growth, evolution and the achievement of one milestone after another.

“Every child deserves a chance at life, and I feel like I was put on this earth to help them,” Terri said.

Terri’s journey into the world of health care began with a childhood dream of becoming a heart surgeon. Although life and career took her on a winding path, including a brief stint in dietary and pharmacy roles, her fascination with heart-related therapies persisted. Then, during a medical ethics class in 1987, she learned about extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. The treatment known by the shorter name ECMO was, at the time a new, groundbreaking therapy that could save infants from respiratory failure.

“ECMO was just so fascinating,” Terri said. “It was new and exciting and helping to save so many little lives. Learning about it was a turning point for me.”

This revelation spurred Terri to pursue a career in nursing and eventually led her to the neonatal intensive care unit, where her affinity for heart patients made her a perfect fit. She has made crucial contributions to the cardiac team and played a pivotal role in pediatric heart transplants as a transplant coordinator. 

In October 2023, Norton Children’s celebrated a major milestone, its 100th pediatric heart transplant. This marked a collective achievement for the entire cardiac team, including Terri.

“As we crept closer to the 100th transplant I remember getting really excited. I keep this handwritten list of all the heart transplant patients, and when I saw we were at 97, I couldn’t believe it,” Terri said. “Our 100th transplant ended up being Thomas [Norris, age 9], and it was so incredibly exciting!”

As an integral part of the pediatric heart transplant team and with her long tenure, Terri is able to reflect on the program’s transformative journey in a way many cannot.

“Looking back on where we started to where we are now, the program has evolved so much,” Terri said. “To know that great care is here, and it’s vibrant, and it’s excellent — is the most heartwarming and rewarding part of it all.”

What sets Terri apart is not just her professional achievements but her profound connection with patients and their families. Terri’s transplant coordinator role extends beyond medical care; it’s a commitment to walk with families through the emotional and practical challenges of life post-transplant. Terri’s patient care philosophy is rooted in recognizing the uniqueness of each patient, tailoring protocols to meet their needs and fostering open communication with families.

“When I first started in the NICU, you took care of the babies and then they went home and you never really saw them again,” Terri said. “Nowadays I get to be there for them through their journey and beyond. To see them go from these sick kids or babies to going school and doing all their firsts and being with their families, is just so rewarding. Trying to help them through to the next stage of their life is just another great part of the job.”

Terri’s personal motivation is powerful.

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“I believe my reason to get out of bed every day is to do what I was put on this earth to do — help kids. God didn’t give me any kids of my own, and while I struggle with that, I do feel like he gave me kids in a different way.”

Terri’s journey has included her own health battles. In 2021 she faced an ovarian cancer diagnosis. While she is now in remission, the experience provided her with a unique perspective on the vulnerability that her sick patients can face. Terri also was born prematurely in 1964, and she thinks her early fight for survival was symbolic of her life’s trajectory.

“From my first moment on this earth, I was being shown what my future had in store,” she said.

Terri’s story is a testament to the incredible impact one individual can have on countless lives. As Terri continues to care for critically ill children at Norton Children’s Hospital, her legacy of love, healing and purpose leaves an enduring mark on the heart of those she serves.