When Mary Jo Holuba enters a child’s hospital room, it’s not uncommon for the child’s eyes to widen. After all, most nurses are dressed in scrubs, not princess dresses.
Not Holuba. She’s different. She’s a nursing student in the pediatric nurse practitioner program at Johns Hopkins University, but she’s also a classically trained soprano whose soaring voice can transport her listeners far beyond the sterile confines of a hospital or clinic.
In between classes and studying, Holuba dons the fanciful gowns of fairytale characters and performs for pediatric patients and their families. Sometimes she gives them a full-on presentation, complete with storytelling and grand gestures and songs. And sometimes, she sits next to a child, holds her hand, and quietly croons her to sleep. She takes her cues from the children.
Either way, she is grateful for the chance to use her gift to help sick children feel better. Even just for the length of a song.
“It’s a great thing to see my dream of fusing my passions--nursing and music--happen,” said Holuba, 23.
As a little girl in New Jersey, Holuba spent many hours visiting a young relative in the hospital, which gave her some natural comfort with the hospital environment. Later, as a teenager, she participated in high school and community theater, honing her performing skills. Remembering her own family’s experience, Holuba called up the local children’s hospital and asked if she could come entertain the children.
She had a calling.
When she was a sophomore in high school, her father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Over the years, he received treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, including three different stem cell transplants. As she observed his nurses at work, the idea of a possible career in nursing was first planted.
Holuba eventually went on to major in psychology at Columbia University, graduating in three years. Then she enrolled in the accelerated BSN program at Johns Hopkins. She even recorded a CD of beloved Christmas songs, at her father’s encouraging.
“He really loved it,” Holuba said. “He took full credit for it being his idea…We played it for him that last Christmas, and it was really great to see his smile while it was on.” She was privileged to spend some time with her father before he died in January 2012.
After returning to school, she finished her BSN during the summer and began her current master’s degree program.
In Baltimore, Holuba had discovered Dr. Bob’s Place, a palliative-care home for terminally ill infants and children. Ever since that discovery, she has committed herself to weekly visits. Even when she’s trying to juggle all the demands of her program, she always finds time to visit the children.
“I make the time for this as if it were a job,” she said. “It’s really important to me, and I know how much it means to the families. I’ve been that family member where the hours can’t pass quickly enough.”
She loves seeing the children respond to her costume and to the music. She always takes requests from the young patients. She’s equally enthusiastic about slightly off-key group renditions of “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as she is about the big Broadway-style numbers that she performs. And when children ask her to sing songs that she doesn’t know, she just encourages the children to teach them to her.
“It’s always fun to make music with them.”
She sees them as children who love music and singing and dancing, not just “sick kids.” “I think that’s a nice change for them,” she said.
With all of her experience, Holuba believes strongly in the value of good end-of-life care and palliative care. Many people don’t want to talk about death or dying, but she realizes it is part of the life process. She hopes to continue exploring her devotion to helping people at such a vulnerable time in their lives.
Her future will certainly include music, too. This spring, Holuba plans to begin visiting the pediatric patients at Johns Hopkins, in addition to Dr. Bob’s. She’ll also continue her course work, with her dream of becoming a pediatric nurse practitioner still in mind. She’s considering a future working with children with cancer in an outpatient setting.
“It’s really just about sharing the music and sharing the time,” she said.
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