Nurse Practitioner brings fun to the hospital
Every day, Mary Schlapkohl wears a red I AM LOVED button pinned to the straps of her ID-card, dangling around her neck.
"A teenage girl gave this to me," the 50-year-old said, clutching it in her hand.
The nurse-practitioner said when she asked the young patient handing them out for one, the child replied, "Ugh, you're never going to wear it."
"And so I've never not worn it, just to spite her," Schlapkohl said and smiled.
Working at the University of Iowa Children's Hospital for the last two decades has allowed her to meet numerous children and families facing cancer.
"I've worked here a long time, so everybody knows me, and I'm up here on the floor a lot," she said.
A UI nursing alumna, Schlapkohl worked for two years as a bone-marrow transplant specialist before becoming an assistant head nurse for the inpatient unit at UIHC. In 1992, she became a nurse-practitioner — beginning her work in the UI's second-level pediatric hematology oncology unit.
A few years after, Schlapkohl was invited to the first planning meeting for Dance Marathon. From there, she has witnessed its continued growth.
"I think of how [Dance Marathon] has evolved to where it is now, and I can't believe it," she said. "It's not just the amount of money it has raised, but what this has grown to mean to our families has been just incredible and how much the students just embrace our families and become so involved with them."
For Schlapkohl, Dance Marathon is like a partnership. The volunteers bring joy to distract patients, she said, and the hospital staff members help children get better and provide information to the families.
"So I think it's a great parallel way of treating our patients and working with them together," she said.
Children's Hospital nurse Kristie Febus, who has worked with Schlapkohl for the last seven years, said she has a knack for working with children.
"I can honestly say that I have not seen a kid who doesn't love Mary," the 31-year-old said.
Febus said Schlapkohl always maintains a lot of energy around staff and patients.
"She figures out a way to put fun into the hospital," Febus said. "This isn't a very fun place, and somehow she is able to make the kids feel comfortable and make them feel like they're at home. It's always jokes and laughing with them, and she makes them feel like there's a little bit of fun to be had here."
Schlapkohl's family has also been shaped by her efforts.
She said she is very proud to have her two children, Sara Petersen and Nick Petersen, involved with Dance Marathon.
Nick Petersen said he definitely gets his love for children and volunteering from his mother.
"She's always trying to make the kids laugh and try to take their mind off of being sick," the 21-year-old said. She really does care about every single one of them."
Petersen said he always tries to be optimistic, like his mother.
"You could always tell when she was stressed out from work or disappointed because a patient passed, but she's always thinking positively," the Iowa State University student said. "I think I've gotten some of that from her too, where I'm always trying to think positively and trying to affect someone positively every day."
Though Schlapkohl has gotten to know most of the children involved with Dance Marathon over the years, some memories stick out more than others.
She said she remembers a young boy who wanted to toilet paper her for his end-of-chemotherapy party.
"I didn't realize that's what he wanted to do, and he wrapped toilet paper all around me," Schlapkohl said and laughed. "He was all boy and just very active."
She has a photo of the moment in her office.
She and other nurses often created games for the boy, such as baseball with wrapped up socks and a Kleenex-box bat.
Building relationships is what she loves most about her job.
"For me, the rewarding thing is you see a new family, and you just know that place that they are in," she said. "You just help the families along. Give them the strength and the knowledge to care for their child, and you really empower those parents."
Bill Walz, who recently married Schlapkohl, said his wife has always been dedicated to her work.
"Those kids are her passion," he said. "Aside of her own kids, who are No. 1 in her life, the kids and those families mean a heck of a lot to her."
This year, Walz will experience his first Big Event.
"She is extremely sharp," he said. "A family could not hope to find a better friend to help get them through the ordeal that they have to go through with a child. I don't think they could possibly do better."
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