Mother and daughter graduates gain focus and strength through advanced nursing degrees

Habibs transcend loss to care for others the way others cared for them

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

June 01, 2017
  Mary Fortunato-Habib, MS, RN, and her daughter, Krystina Habib, BA, RN
 

Mary Fortunato-Habib, MS, RN, and Krystina Habib, BA, RN

For Mary Fortunato-Habib, MS, RN, and her daughter, Krystina Habib, BA, RN, the pursuit of advanced practice nursing degrees has been an act of healing. The pair, who will graduate Sunday at Commencement 2017, began their studies at the Graduate School of Nursing soon after they lost their husband and father, Joseph Habib, to pancreatic cancer.

“An entire team of exceptional people cared for us as a family, but it was the nursing role that made the difference,” said Fortunato-Habib, of her late husband’s care. “Both of us saw the profound impact that a nurse, an advanced practice nurse or a nurse leader can have.”

The mother and daughter will hood each other Sunday during UMass Medical School’s 44th Commencement as Fortunato-Habib accepts her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and Habib her Master of Science in Nursing degree.

Fortunato-Habib became a nurse with a diploma from Worcester City Hospital, followed by a bachelor’s in nursing from Worcester State University in 1984 and a Master of Science in Nursing from the GSN in 1996. She spent 27 years at UMass Memorial in varying roles from staff nursing through management. She spent several years working in leadership roles in Boston before returning closer to home in Central Massachusetts, most recently as chief nursing officer at UMass Memorial HealthAlliance Hospital.

With a long and successful career already under her belt, Fortunato-Habibs began looking into doctoral programs because she believed that, even with a lot of experience, she needed a terminal degree in her position. Returning to school took a back burner when her husband got sick, until after his death in 2013.

“I needed a constructive focus,” Fortunato-Habib recalled. “I could sit around and feel sorry for myself or do something that’s useful, goal-oriented and would keep me busy at the same time.”

As one new to the health care field, Habib has reasons of her own for why she appreciates learning at an academic health sciences center that emphasizes interprofessional education.

“You’re both starting on the ground floor in learning experiences with medical students, so when you’re out in practice you have equal respect for one another and are familiar with each other’s roles,” she said.

Habib graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s in anthropology from Florida Gulf Coast University, where she was honored to be the only undergraduate selected for a forensic anthropology internship at the medical examiner’s office in Naples, Fla.

“I loved the work they did, but realized I wanted a career that had a little bit more of an effect on someone’s life,” said Habib. “I want to help people during their life instead of after their death.”

She began prerequisite courses to apply to nursing school, returning to Massachusetts during her father’s illness.

The many nurse practitioners who cared for her father gave her a new perspective. “I felt they always addressed us and treated him as a full person,” she said. “That was what inspired me to take on the advanced practice role.”

With her master’s in the GSN’s adult-gerontology acute care track, Habib’s first goal is to obtain a position as a general medicine nurse practitioner to build upon her newly acquired knowledge base and clinical skills; she is already working as a registered nurse at UMass Memorial Medical Center. Her ultimate goal is to be a surgical specialty nurse practitioner. “Surgery fascinates me because you’re taking people apart and putting them back together,” she explained.

Currently seeking opportunities to apply her new knowledge and skills gained in the DNP nursing administration track, Fortunato-Habib looks forward to trying something new, perhaps in innovation technology. “In the future, I would like to share some of the experiences, knowledge and skills in academia as we need leadership in nursing roles in today’s changing health care environment,” she said.

Both women are philosophical about how their experiences with their family tragedy led to positive professional and personal growth. “Recognizing how much we were helped, you want to give back,” said Fortunato-Habib.

They have already given back as participants in the annual UMass Cancer Walk. In the past three years Habib has raised more than $8,000 as the team leader for “Progress for PanCan: In Loving Memory of Joe Habib.”

“He told us, ‘don’t let this ruin you, keep on going,’” Habib said. “I can be sad, but I have something to focus on and run with, and that’s what he wanted.”

Related story on UMassMedNow:
UMass Medicine Cancer Walk/Run holds special meaning for GSN student

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