Through nursing, woman expresses love for service

Mary McCarthy poses in Des Moines May 1, the date of an award ceremony for the 100 Great Iowa Nurses of 2011.

By Celine Klosterman

As a child, Mary McCarthy admired the work her mother, grandmother and aunts did as nurses.

McCarthy just didn’t think that work was for her.

Long, unusual hours and other challenges that she saw medical professionals face didn’t sound appealing. But as the Catholic pondered her future while enrolled at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, her relatives’ examples lingered in her mind. “The nurses I knew were strong, intelligent, purposeful and very engaged in what they did.”


Partly thanks to their examples, McCarthy took a job as a physical therapy assistant midway through her college education. She later transferred to Marycrest College in Davenport, where she graduated with a degree in nursing.

Now, it seems clear to her that health care is in her blood. This spring she was named one of 100 Great Iowa Nurses, whom the Iowa Nurses Association, Iowa Nurses Foundation and the University of Iowa College of Nursing choose from nominations they receive. The patient education coordinator at Mercy Iowa City tries to live up to the honor, teaching patients how to manage diseases, facilitating support groups and offering educational programs for hospital staff.

It’s work she said she values for the daily opportunities to learn new things and build relationships, much as her relatives have done. Her grandmother helped a country doctor in South Dakota deliver babies in farmhouses along dusty roads and cared for polio patients, who were often placed in iron lungs. McCarthy’s mother served in emergency nursing, mentored nurses and recognized the impact nursing care makes in a patient’s experience, the Great Iowa Nurse said. And all the health care professionals McCarthy has respected showed a positive attitude, commitment to patients, curiosity, hope and a sense of humor, she wrote in a chapter for “Ordinary Miracles in Nursing,” a 2006 collection of stories.

Such traits prove helpful when witnessing the struggles that patients face — difficulties that aren’t just medical, but emotional, spiritual and financial, she said.

“One of the biggest issues in health care is how we finance it. I empathize with people who can’t pay for their care. It’s frustrating. But we try to help people find resources.”

McCarthy, who has ended up working only in Catholic hospitals, said she’s glad to see Mercy Iowa City offer patients access to spiritual resources, too. Masses and ecumenical services are celebrated several times a week at the hospital, and chaplains offer morning and evening prayer and minister to patients.

Working in an environment such as Mercy’s makes McCarthy feel she’s living up to what a priest identified as the mission of her alma mater, Bishop Heelan Catholic High School in Sioux City: to teach students to learn, pray and serve. “I love to serve,” she said.

Jeanne Hein, director of nursing operations at Mercy Iowa City, shared evidence of that love when nominating McCarthy to be a Great Iowa Nurse.

She’s willing to help anyone in need, whether a patient, family member, co-worker or community member, Hein wrote. “Patients and families have expressed their gratitude for Mary’s help and as a result, she has developed lifelong friendships with these patients and their families.  She continues to assist them long after they have been discharged. Mary is one of the first to volunteer her time and talents when someone is in need.”

McCarthy hopes to inspire others to do as much, just as nurses inspired her. In “Ordinary Miracles,” she wrote that she’d like to “leave a legacy” of at least one nurse to replace her.

“I’m in a wonderful profession,” she said.

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