Nursing's Other Nightingale
RN-turned-pop singer continues to draw on her healing background for inspiration in her second career
By Donna Hemmila
October 8, 2002
Former ICU and ER nurse Nita Whitaker has recorded a song, "Heaven Holds the Ones I Love," which has been adopted by many as a theme for victims and their survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks.
When you see Nita Whitaker singing on stage with Celine Dion and Enrique Iglesias during a TV special in November, she won't be wearing her scrubs.
The vocalist and former Miss Louisiana quit her hospital ER job in 1989 to raise her first daughter and concentrate full time on a music career. Yet whether she's performing on stage or tending to a patient, Whitaker said the desire to heal is part of her inspiration. The healing connection seems especially evident in her song, "Heaven Holds the Ones I Love." Although Whitaker recorded the number in February 2001, the lyrics took on new meaning after Sept. 11. When she originally sang it, she thought of her mother who died when Whitaker was a teenager.
Now, when Whitaker sings the heartfelt lyrics about celebrating the memories of loved ones, she thinks of those who lost their lives in the attacks.
Radio personalities and listeners share the emotions and have taken up the song as a theme for Sept. 11 victims and their survivors.
"I'm so blessed by how people have embraced that song," Whitaker said.
The single is featured on Whitaker's CD "One Voice." Whitaker remembers sitting down to write the title track in about 20 minutes Aug. 29, 2001. This song, too, has taken on a different meaning since Sept. 11."It says, "What kind of world are we making for our children?" Whitaker said.
Songwriter and music producer David Foster produced the album with Whitaker, culminating a long musical friendship. Foster, famous for producing such songs as Whitney Houston's hit "I Will Always Love You," recorded a demo tape with Whitaker for actor Kevin Costner. When Costner heard Whitaker sing, he cast her in a part in the movie, "The Bodyguard," in which he starred with Houston.
Whitaker often sings Houston hits and others that Foster wrote at charity events the music producer organizes. Through Foster, Whitaker said she's performed at hundreds of benefits with stars such as Elton John and Faith Hill.
On Nov. 14, the ABC Family Channel will broadcast "The Concert for World Children's Day," during which Whitaker will join Celine Dion, Enrique Iglesias, Josh Groban, Nick Carter and others, who will perform a song Foster wrote for the benefit. United Airlines also features Whitaker's music on its in-flight music channel.
"It's been an amazing journey," Whitaker said.
The journey began back in Shreveport, La., where Whitaker started singing at age 3 in church and at family parties. Although she loved singing, her first serious career aspirations led to nursing.
After her mother died, Whitaker said she wanted to be an ICU nurse to help other families. She earned a BSN degree from the University of Louisiana at Monroe and went to work in a med/surg unit. After a year, she returned to her hometown of Shreveport,where she fulfilled her dream of working in hospital ICUs.
She worked graveyard shifts and remembers that when patients had a difficult time falling asleep, she would sing to them and give them back rubs.
At the same time, she worked on her singing career by entering beauty pageants. In 1984, she was crowned Miss Louisiana.
Then she went off to the Miss America Pageant, armed with the blessings and $200 from the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who ran the hospital where she worked.
When she returned to Shreveport without the crown, Whitaker decided to push her singing career in a different direction. She read about traveling nurses in NURSEWEEK and signed up with an agency in Los Angeles. She was25 and determined to make it on her own.
"I had $500 in my pocket. That's all I had," she said.
She lived in the agency-provided apartment with three other traveling nurses and kept looking for that big break. She won a few talent contests, including the TV talent competition "Star Search."
On the road
Whitaker scored her first singing job as a backup vocalist for Ben Vereen. That meant going on the road to perform, so she started working for a nursing registry, taking hospital shifts whenever she was in Los Angeles.
She worked in an ICU on night shifts until she met her husband and switched to the ER, so she could work days and spend time with him.
Rachael Fearon, RN, still keeps in touch with Whitaker after the two became pals in the ER at Kaiser Foundation Hospital-West Los Angeles. When Whitaker started working at the hospital, Fearon said, co-workers kept telling her the two had to meet because they were so much alike.
Working different shifts, the two nurses kept missing each other until one day they had a chance to sit outside, eat lunch and talk.
"It was like love at first sight," Fearon said. "She's very open. She's good to the patients, and she has a loving nature. She'd always be the first one to answer a call even when it wasn't her patient."
Although Whitaker quit the ER, she still looks and acts like a nurse. For her first TV role, she played a nurse in an after-school special and has had three more acting parts as a nurse.Whitaker kept her license current until three years ago and has had many opportunities to put her skills to use in real life.
In 1997-98, she played in the Los Angeles production of the musical "Ragtime," and three times she came to someone's aid during a performance.
Once, she even walked offstage in the middle of a number when she saw a woman in the audience fall over and become wedged under her seat.
"Those nursing skills just kick in," Whitaker said.
Another time, she heard a commotion in the lobby and when she finished her number she rushed back to see a young woman screaming.
"Nobody knew what to do," Whitaker said. "They thought she was possessed."
Whitaker calmed her down and realized the woman was having an allergic reaction to medication.
During one performance, the emergency happened onstage. Part of the scenery, a steel door, fell from the ceiling onto two of the actors. Again, Whitaker rushed to their sides.
"I kept thinking, "God put me in this show," " she said.
Whitaker continues to work on her musical career and thinks there's room in the pop music world for more mature female singers like herself.
"I'm not 25 and the record companies aren't nipping at my heels," she said. "I think there's room for adults who sing songs withmeaning."
Whitaker would like to do more television and wouldn't mind playing a nurse again, she said, especially on a show like "ER."
"Nursing has been my rock in my life," Whitaker said. "It gives me something to help other people with."