Thursday, May 06, 2021

Person of the Week

Diane Aldi DePaola is All About Volunteering

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After feeling called to nursing as a child, Diane Aldi DePaola spent a lengthy career in psychiatric nursing and continues to help looking after her community in retirement.

Photo courtesy of Diane Aldi DePaola

After feeling called to nursing as a child, Diane Aldi DePaola spent a lengthy career in psychiatric nursing and continues to help looking after her community in retirement. (Photo courtesy of Diane Aldi DePaola )

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Diane Aldi DePaola’s artwork reflects her appreciation for the local landscape. Photo courtesy of Diane Aldi DePaola

Diane Aldi DePaola’s artwork reflects her appreciation for the local landscape. (Photo courtesy of Diane Aldi DePaola )

From a very young age, Diane Aldi DePaola—chair of the Old Saybrook Public Health Nursing Board (PHNB) for 18 years, member of the Historic District Commission, artist, retired nurse, and proud grandmother—was taught by her mother to contribute to her community.

“[A] big, big, big part of my life is volunteering and giving back,” she says. “I’ve been doing that since I was a young girl, because that was something my mother always encouraged us to do.”

Growing up in modest circumstances in New Britain—her father was a tailor and her mother a nurse—she began her volunteerism at an early age by helping the nuns at St. Ann Church and donating toys to the Salvation Army.

“[T]here was one incident when I was a very young girl, I think I was only like five or six,” she remembers. “I used to play with the little girl next door, who was three or four. And one day, I was there playing with her and she had a febrile seizure. And the mother said to me, ‘Go get your mother,’ because my mom was a nurse.”

Diane had never before seen her mother in her role as a nurse.

“She knew just what to do,” Diane says. “She put the baby in a cool bath. She made sure she had an airway. She really saved this kid...I [can] remember wanting to be a nurse right after that...I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Diane did become a nurse, training at the New Britain General Hospital School of Nursing.

“It was a three-year, 11-months-a-year program,” she explains, “and you graduated with an R.N.—you’re a registered nurse, but you didn’t have your bachelor’s degree.”

She went back to school later, earning her B.A. through an external degree program at Goddard College in Vermont while working full time.

“I did a lot of medical surgical nursing,” she says. “I did intensive coronary care nursing. I did public health nursing.”

A Shift to Psychiatric Care

It was while working for New Britain’s Public Health Nursing Department that she began her shift to psychiatric care.

“[W]e would visit people in their homes that needed care,” she recalls, “and no one wanted to go out and visit the folks with psychiatric problems.”

But she would, and that led to work at Connecticut Valley Hospital in Berlin, a state hospital dedicated to patients with mental illness, where her job was “helping to discharge people...and get them into the community.”

But she felt the need for more training.

“[I]n 1973, I got an opportunity to get into a special training program” at Bristol Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry. “[T]hey had people from all walks of life: psychologists, social workers, priests, and it was to help train people who worked with people that might have mental illness.”

After finishing that two-year course, she asked Joseph Dorflinger, a clinical social worker and one of the administrators of the program, for a recommendation for a job she was interested in at the Wheeler Clinic, a psychiatric facility in Plainville. But he refused. Diane had begun to walk away from their meeting when he explained himself.

“‘I want you to come work for us at Bristol hospital,’” he told her.

“So that’s how I got into psychiatric nursing,” she says. “And I did that for the rest of my career.”

Within three or four years, in the mid-’70s, Diane helped lead the effort to open Bristol Hospital’s first inpatient mental health unit, with the guidance and support of Dorflinger and Psychiatric Services Medical Director Kenneth Bean, M.D.

Then, in the early ‘80s, “they asked me if I would help them to write a certificate of need (CON) for a day treatment program,” she says.

While she had written applications for small grants before, this required a large one.

“I did the research, planning, and wrote the CON,” she explains. “When it was presented, a two-day process, I was on maternity leave with my first son and I had to bring him to the hearings because I was breastfeeding.”

She testified before what was then the Hospital and Health Care Cost Commission.

“It was very exciting,” she says, and “it got approved.”

Over time, her career shifted from seeing patients to administration: creating and planning programs, hiring nurses.

But “I always stayed involved with patients,” she says. “I always kept my hand in...groups, and seeing a few patients. I never wanted to give that part up, you know, because I really enjoy[ed] it.

“I think nurses have a calling,” she adds.

When she and her husband moved to Old Saybrook in the late 1980s, the lack of facilities in the area made it difficult to find work in psychiatric nursing; she eventually took a job as a psychiatric nurse at the Middlesex Visiting Nurses Association (VNA). Her drive and leadership skills came into play there, too.

“[T]hey had a small grant to do psychiatric visits in people’s homes, help them with their medications, make sure they were doing okay,” she recalls. “But they only used the grant” to cover costs.

“I had a lot of experience at the New Britain VNA, [where] we charged Medicare and private insurance,” she says. “And I said to them, ‘You know, you can charge the [patients’] insurance.’

“I said, ‘Let’s do an experiment,’” she continues. “Let’s take a Medicare patient, and let’s take a patient that has private insurance, and let’s take a Medicaid patient. And I’ll see them and I’ll do all the write-ups in the charting and we’ll see if we get paid. And, lo and behold, we were able to [get paid] and expand the program. So that was kind of exciting.”

Although there is still a stigma around mental health, understanding of it and compassion for those who live with it has grown over the years, Diane explains.

“[B]ack when I started in psych, nursing...there was still a little bit of a feeling, among even doctors...that all they need is a good boost and they could solve their problem,” she explains. “You can’t see a psychiatric problem. It’s not like an arm in a sling...and they would kind of say the patient was just not wanting to help themselves.

“So you had to educate professionals, as well as patients, families,” she continues. “[W]hen you have long-term chronic illnesses, like schizophrenia and bipolar disease, the parents sometimes don’t understand that. Now, it’s very, very different. But I’m talking back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

A Move to Saybrook

Diane and her husband, John, bought a summer home in Cornfield Point in the late 1980s.

“We loved it,” she said. “We felt like we were on vacation all the time. We then moved into [the house] year-round, until we built our first house here in Old Saybrook. My husband’s a builder, so every house that we’ve lived in, except for the beach house and the one we’re in now, he built.”

Soon after moving to Old Saybrook, she was cooking one day a week for the soup kitchen at St. John’s Church. As her two boys rose through the public school system, Diane became PTO president at the middle school and high school, chair of two graduation night parties, and heavily involved in fundraising for kids who needed help to pay for field trips and other programs. In 2000, she joined the PHNB; she was elected chair around three years later.

The PHNB helps residents who are uninsured or underinsured to obtain healthcare.

“We have to find an agency [to provide the care] and ask the Board of Selectmen to approve that agency,” she explains.

The town has contracted with the VNA of Middlesex for over a decade now to provide Old Saybrook with a town nurse. The PHNB also created a dental fund, administered by Social Services Coordinator Sue Consoli, that provides help to those in need.

A Talent for Art

It was through volunteering that she discovered her interest in—and talent for—art.

After retiring, she was asked to be on the board of a small local art school, Tracy Art Center. The owner, Nancy Tracy, facing financial difficulties, had turned her business into a non-profit and, thanks to Diane’s reputation as a fundraiser for the PTO, asked her to serve on its board of directors and help to raise money.

“The last time I’d had an art class in school was probably 3rd- or 4th grade, because I was geared to be a nurse and I had to do a lot of science classes,” Diane recalls.

“But I here I’m watching all these people doing these paintings and drawing and I wasn’t working at the time,” she says. “So I started taking art lessons. And then watercolor. And then I just wanted to do oil—[there was] this thing about the paint, the thickness of the paint.

“And that’s how I got started in art,” she continues. “And I’ve been doing it...for more than 15 years now.”

Diane paints with a group, Brushstrokes, whose work inaugurated Old Saybrook Town Hall’s Art Hallway in February of last year. Originally called Odyssey, the group of artists often paints outside, en plein air, at Diane’s last house on North Cove.

“We have such a beautiful area to paint,” she says of Saybrook. “We do outside painting half the year at least. And then when it gets too cold, we go inside. We paint together at least once a week.”

When COVID hit, Brushstrokes, which has members in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, had to stop meeting in person. But as more members get vaccinated, they are hoping again to make art together, especially as the weather warms and allows them to meet outside.

“We help each other,” she says. Many members have “been painting for so many years—it’s so great to have their support. And it’s such a supportive atmosphere.”

Diane’s artwork can be found on her website, dianealdidepaola.com.


Aviva Luria covers news from Old Saybrook and Westbrook for Zip06. Email Aviva at a.luria@shorepublishing.com.

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