By Martie Thompson

Diana Openbrier grew up in a farming community south of Pittsburgh. The family truly lived off the land, including eggs from chickens and a three-acre garden that provided vegetables as well as income from the sale of the crops. At age 11, Openbrier said this income provided for the purchase of the family’s first television. “We never wanted for anything,” Openbrier said. “I guess we were poor, but we had everything we needed.”

Eventually, her parents divorced and she ultimately lived with her father off the farm. At age 15, she took a job at the Anchor Hocking glass factory and was able to save enough money to go to nursing school after she finished high school. She worked her way through nursing school by working at three jobs, but ended up being in the one-third of her class that graduated. Thus began a lengthy and distinguished career in nursing that included more education (bachelor’s, master’s, PhD and finally a certification as a Family Nurse Practitioner) and an eclectic assortment of jobs. Openbrier retired in January and still keeps busy with volunteer work, especially at the Mandarin Garden Club as well as with UNF Botanical Gardens. She was recently awarded certification as a Florida Master Naturalist. She and husband Gary Swanson recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

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Q: What was a particular interest of yours during your nursing career?
A: Nutrition became a big interest for me when I worked at the VA Hospital in Pittsburgh. I worked with COPD patients who were underweight. I worked with drug companies to develop a nutritional supplement for these patients, who had better outcomes once they gained some weight. I also developed the first home ventilator program and developed a home oxygen program with better equipment for these patients — and saved the VA money while doing so. 

Q: How did you meet your husband?
A: He lived next door to me when I was in Pittsburgh. We were together for a number of years before we decided to get married before the end of a year for the tax deduction. It took us until New Year’s Eve to do so. Gary is a mechanical engineer who worked at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh. The plan was for us to both work until 1990 and then take some time to go sailing, something we enjoyed together.

Q: Where did you sail?
A: We lived aboard our 30-foot sailboat “Lothlorien” for six and a half years and sailed around the Caribbean. We had lots of adventures, including the time I sewed a worker’s finger back on in Trinidad and helped a bartender in Bequia with high blood pressure. But eventually, we came back to the States and sailed up the Intracoastal Waterway to Jacksonville. Gary decided he liked being on land, so we stayed here. I went back to work and earned my Family Nurse Practitioner certificate from the University of North Florida in 2003.

Q:  How did you get involved with the Mandarin Garden Club?
A: Around 2012, a longtime member of the garden club was a patient of mine. She brought me a membership form and I joined the circle she belonged to. The circle needed help, so I offered — and then they made me the president. I’ve always enjoyed gardening, since I was a little girl on the farm. Even on the sailboat, I had a little tray of herb plants.

Q: What are some of the projects you’re working on at the garden club?
A: The garden club has many gardens which require maintenance and we rely on our volunteers. We were having fewer and fewer people show up on work days, so I started offering lunch for those who came to volunteer. They would work in the garden in the morning every Wednesday and then have lunch together. We went from three people to 32 people. 

Photo courtesy Diana Openbrier
Diana Openbrier

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