Dr. Carrie Nero—a 2021 USF Alumni Award recipient—has lived a life of service in two
With more than three decades of a career in both nursing and the military, Nero has touched countless lives, overcoming many obstacles and becoming a trailblazer in the process, including as the first African-American nurse to achieve rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserves.
Decades earlier, growing up in a segregated St. Petersburg, Nero began to find one of her callings during a game with her sister – playing hospital as doctors and nurses, their dolls and pets serving as pretend patients. The games were a fun break between chores and school work overseen by a strict grandmother who cared for them while their musician parents were working out of town.
“When I was coming up, my grandmother was one where you didn’t go out into the neighborhood. It was school, home and church,” Nero recalled laughing. “I could hear my grandmother saying, ‘You need to get your education.’”
As Nero moved through high school in the 1960s, the few career opportunities open to Black women at the time included school teaching and nursing, if one didn’t want to work in domestic service, she said. From the games with her sister, Nero had progressed to volunteering as a candy striper at the Crippled Children Hospital, a facility that predated today’s All Children’s Hospital. The experiences cemented her desire to pursue a career in nursing in order to help people.
Sharing the same campus as her high school was Gibbs Junior College. It was the first of Florida’s 11 new African American junior colleges, named for Jonathan Gibbs – the man who had opened a private school for formerly enslaved people after the Civil War and served as the first African American member of the Florida Cabinet during Reconstruction before the era of Jim Crow.
Nero signed up for Gibbs High School’s practical nursing program as a dual-enrolled student at age 16, later enrolling in Gibbs Junior College. She was inspired to excel by the practical nursing instructor, who was both a registered nurse and her neighbor.
“She was determined that no one would fail the state board,” Nero said. She motivated Nero to want to learn more. If they were studying the nervous system, she expected the students to be reviewing the skeletal system, too, for instance. The more you know and educate yourself, Nero recalled her saying, the more you can help others.
And that’s exactly what Nero proceeded to do. After passing the state board exams for licensed practical nursing (LPN), Nero took the next step to becoming a registered nurse by enrolling in the associates program at what is today’s main campus of St. Petersburg College, being at the time one of only two Black students in her class. Nero was determined to soak up all that she could, parking herself in the first row during nursing lectures in the auditorium.
“I wanted to be in the front. I wanted to learn and to be able to hear and get all that I could get out of it,” she said. Not everyone appreciated her efforts. Despite the fact that Nero was working full time at an area hospital and pulling in test scores of 98 and 100, one instructor didn’t believe she could really do both.
Quiet and determined, Nero offered to retake her tests in the presence of the dean to prove that she hadn’t cheated. Instead, she was given an incomplete and made to take the class over again that summer – which she did, still working and once again scoring top marks.
“It makes you study harder,” she said. “It makes you more determined. You want to show that you know this.”
Also making a major impact on her at the time was her work at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, where policies forced Black patients to be cared for in the basement through the late 1960s.
“Sometimes we didn’t have enough space to walk between gurneys in the hallway in the basement,” she said. “It gave me a drive to do more to help people, and I think that is part of my inspiration.” She recalled thinking, “If I’m going to take care of my people, I’m going to do the best that I can do.”
From Morton, she moved onto surgical nursing in what is today’s Bayfront Health, among the first Black nursing students to integrate the hospital staff. After completing the RN associate’s program at St. Pete College in 1970, she eventually enrolled in USF, where over the next two decades she would earn numerous additional degrees – including a bachelor’s degree in sociology; a master’s degree in guidance and counseling / behavioral health; and a master’s degree in nursing. She also obtained a doctorate in higher education from Nova South Eastern University.
Through these years, starting in the mid-1970s, she also transitioned over from hospital nursing to the Pinellas County Health Department. There she would go on to spearhead a focus on health disparities among Black residents and other minorities, leading her to become Pinellas County Health Department’s first director of minority health – the director of the first such Minority Health Office in the state. She also was instrumental in sparking new gene research in sickle cell to make sure all babies were tested for it, not just Black babies. She was also part of a task force called “Closing the Gap” that worked to eliminate disparities in health care in minority communities.
And she was a key force behind the creation of what became the statewide Healthy Start program, which provides free home visits to pregnant women, new mothers and their babies to help to lower risk factors associated with preterm birth, infant mortality and other poor developmental outcomes.
Even as she was doing all of this – by then married to husband, Joe, and a mother herself to two young boys – Nero was trailblazing in a second, parallel career. While she still had been at Bayfront, she had seen a group of impressive looking Army Reserve nurses in uniform as they were recruiting. She decided that she wanted to be a part of that world of service as well, joining in 1975.
For the next three decades, she trained all over the world, working on assignments at the Pentagon as well as the War College, and overseeing stateside care for wounded soldiers in Desert Shield/Desert Storm in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. In 2002, while serving as chief nurse of “Desert Medics,” 3rd Medical Command, she achieved the rank of brigadier general, the first African American nurse to do so in the U.S. Army Reserves – a position obtained after a rigorous review process of hundreds of career portfolios by an election board, then subject to approval by Congress and the president.
Asked to reflect on her wealth of accomplishments, Nero said she does not think of her life that way. Even as she was breaking some barriers among national leaders, afterward she’d be right back in St. Pete at the health department, where hundreds of pregnant mothers from minority communities filled the maternity clinic each week seeking important prenatal care they couldn’t get elsewhere.
“I’m seeing people who look like me not getting some of the health care that they need,” she said. “I just want to be a servant, and I want to be behind the scenes working to help our community and help as much as I can.”
Just as she was inspired by mentors, Nero has impacted le-gions of peers and younger colleagues – many who describe her as a humble, tireless advocate for families, particularly Black communities of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County.
“Between her ability to continue getting her education – master’s degrees and a doctorate degree and then various positions in administration – she was pretty much that person to admire and to strive to become like,” said Vienna Adams, RN, BSN, retired assistant director of nursing at the Pinellas County Health Department who worked with Nero to found the minority health office and its programs.
Adams arrived to the health department in her twenties and was immediately taken with Nero. She quickly found herself brought under Nero’s wing – along with many others who saw in Nero not only a strong, spiritual and humble leader but also a maternal figure to all colleagues—no matter their age—for her guidance, kindness and loving example.
“We followed her because she loved the community,” Adams said. “She just knew they needed more and she was going to find a way to get it.”Life-long friends, Adams insists on referring to her as Dr.Nero even though she tells people, “Just call me Carrie.” The respect and love for her in the community is wide-spread. Through the Florida-Parent Child Center—a non-profit she co-founded with husband, Joe—Nero has regularly taken children on camping trips through the years, while organizing couples’ and youth retreats.
Between work at the health department, Nero would spend lunch hours and after-work time at the center’s day care, said Gwendolyn Reese, who was among those who worked closely with Nero on crafting what became the Healthy Start legislation.
“She is a nurse in her heart, she is a nurse in everything she does,” Reese said. “She has never missed a beat or a step in taking care of people and her community. I love her and respect her, and I’m so blessed to have had our lives cross.”
Nero’s beloved husband, Joe, passed away in 2014. Her sons and their children live close by in the Tampa Bay area.
Despite being retired for about 15 years, Nero has not slowed down. She continues to volunteer, including on veterans projects such as blood pressure checks. This past year during the pandemic, she also volunteered with the USF College of Nursing on a COVID-19 training module and has done outreach with local churches to raise public awareness on vaccines and COVID-19 – whose disproportionate impact on Black communities reflects the ongoing need to continue the battle against health inequities.
The work is not easy, she says, and while much has been accomplished since her days in nursing school, much work remains to be done, for as long as it takes.
“If I’m a small part of that,” she said, “then that’s what I’ll be blessed to continue to do.”
Story by Saundra Amrhein