Photos courtesy of Debbi Giannoni Herr (above)

Helping those around us: Nursing and beyond

By MARISA MATA, Student Writer

“My career began in the summer of ’69 — Ken and I married and the next day we flew out to Alabama. It was a huge challenge to work in the Deep South,” Debbi Giannoni Herr (1969) said in recounting her decades-long career as a nurse and educator.

Herr was born and raised in Fresno. Her father, Rudy, a prisoner of war during World War II, instilled in her the values of strength and helping others. She said, “I have an essay I wrote in third grade that said I wanted to help people and I hoped to become a nurse or a doctor. That never went away and that dream came true.”

At the age of 14, Herr became a Candy-striper at Fresno Community Hospital, and joined the nursing program at Fresno State after graduating from McClane High School. She didn’t experience life outside of the western United States until 1969, when she and her husband moved to Alabama. Her husband was stationed at the Redstone Arsenal Army Base and she immediately applied for her first position as a Registered Nurse, at the Huntsville Community Hospital, where she faced a huge culture shock.

Graduates of Fresno State’s Nursing Program, 1969

“Although the Civil Rights Act was passed, it was still an extremely racist culture. Many places in the community were still segregating black and white Americans. At the hospital, whites didn’t want to be in a room with a black person. Encountering this attitude with physicians, nurses and other staff, I thought, ‘Wow, this is not the America I knew growing up in the Valley.’ I was met with tremendous resistance because of my beliefs in treating each of my patients with care and respect.”

After living in Alabama and Texas, Herr returned to California in the late 1970s. She worked in cardiac and intensive care units in Oakland and finally in Auburn, where she and her husband settled. Constantly surrounded by patients close to death, she decided she needed a change. As a new mother, she was drawn to working with children, and enrolled in the school nurse credential program at Sacramento State. It was a challenge with two small daughters at home, but Herr received her credential in 1982.

Herr with two friends, Alicia and Janet

“I had no idea what I was getting into as a school nurse. Being a good communicator with teachers, administrators, parents and physicians from afar takes a great deal of time and is one of the most important aspects in working on behalf of a student. I loved working with young people and their families. I felt I could make a difference, one student at a time.”

“You get out of something what you put into it and make of it,” was a saying Herr learned from her father, something she kept in mind while working as a school nurse in rural northern California communities. In the 1990s she was the only school nurse in her district, serving seven schools that covered over 400 square miles, and often was the only health professional some students ever saw.

In addition to assisting children in her offices, she volunteered to enter classrooms to teach hygiene and physiology, and later, after receiving her multiple subject teaching credential and Master’s Degree in Education, spent half her time teaching high school science.

Herr’s role continued to expand — she joined a grant-writing team in her school district, securing almost eight million dollars for programs focused on students’ mental, emotional and physical health. She developed a program to reduce teen pregnancy, and worked to help students lead the way against drugs and tobacco in their community.

Herr and her daughters

Because of her extensive service, she was named the district’s Director of Health Services. She retired in 2010, after a full a career of more than 40 years. She said, “It was a very rewarding career, and if I could do it all over again, I surely would.”

Although retired, Herr has continued to make an impact in her community — volunteering with community organizations to help the homeless, underprivileged children and middle and high school students and acting as an advocate for students with disabilities.

Herr also stays connected to Fresno — volunteering with her family in the area at Fresno’s Veteran’s Hospital, carrying on the legacy of her father who was a staunch supporter of the VA. And although she lives 250 miles away, Herr continues to support and admire Fresno State, saying, “I’m really excited to see how Fresno State has grown and transfigured itself into a national university. I’m a proud Valley girl and Bulldog.”

“Education of my family has been critical. My Italian immigrant grandfather worked in the fields and as a gardener in the small, rural town of Dos Palos. My father was not able to attend college, as World War II took him to the European arena. His dream was for [my siblings and I] to attend college and have a better life. When I graduated from Fresno State, I became the first college graduate in our big family. And now it is on to the next generation, to make certain we are helping those around us to succeed.”

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