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Newsmaker: Donna Feigley Barbisch / Setting goals leads to success in military

Monday, March 04, 2002

By M. Ferguson Tinsley, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Donna Feigley Barbisch says adolescence for her was B-average grades and low self-esteem.

But her mother, Jean Feigley of Scott, remembers it differently.

When she was about 14, "she went up to Kane [Regional Centers] hospital and became a candy-striper," Feigley said of her daughter. "She didn't ask me about it. She just did it."

Around the same time, "she started to go roller skating and she started to win trophies," Feigley recalled. "She did this all on her own. She never asked, 'What do you think? Should I try this?' She set goals for herself and just did them. Every mother should have such a child."

Barbisch chuckled when she heard what her mother said.

Donna F. Barbisch

Date of birth: July 14, 1947

Place of birth: Dormont

In the news: A Vietnam War veteran with 32 years in the armed services, she was promoted to major general Jan. 18 and is the first Army Reserve nurse to hold that rank. She is a specialist in anti-terrorism preparedness for the Army Reserve and teaches military and government agencies how to handle medical problems after a terrorist attack.

Quote: "I wanted to be an engineer, but in [high] school they told me that girls couldn't be engineers. They said you could be a teacher, you could be a nurse, you could be a secretary."

Education: Bachelor's degrees in anesthesia and education from California University of Pennsylvania; master's from the University of North Carolina; doctorate from the Medical University of South Carolina.

Family: Divorced; two daughters, Rebecca, 25, and Patricia, 23, both of whom are engineers.


"My mother, I love her," she said, still laughing.

A Vietnam War veteran who has spent 32 years in military service, Maj. Gen. Barbisch is a specialist in anti-terrorism preparedness for the Army Reserve. As a U.S. State Department civilian employee, she teaches military and government agencies how to handle medical problems after a terrorist attack.

Promoted to major general on Jan. 18, Barbisch is the first Army Reserve nurse to hold that rank.

She said much of her teen-age decision-making came from a desire to avoid burdening Feigley.

The widow, whose photographer husband David Feigley died in 1957, often worked two jobs to make ends meet. Feigley raised three girls and a boy alone.

"All that I am and ever hope to be I owe to my mother," said Barbisch, quoting Abraham Lincoln. Still, as a teen-ager, she knew she did not want to live her mother's life.

"I saw a lot of people when I was growing up. Their fathers were something -- a lawyer, a general. And they would say, 'I want to grow up to be a lawyer, I want to be a general.' My father died. My mother struggled. I didn't want to grow up and struggle."

After graduation from Chartiers Valley High School, she enrolled in the now-defunct Columbia Hospital School of Nursing in Wilkinsburg. One day an instructor showed the class slides of her own battlefield nursing experiences in World War II.

Although Barbisch remembered that one picture showed nurses warming themselves around a fire, she saw more, and the thought of helping soldiers wounded in battle appealed to her.

In 1967, Barbisch enlisted in the Army and finished a nurse's training program. Two years later, she was assigned to the 91st Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai, which resembled the hospital in "M*A*S*H," a movie and TV series.

"It was very much like [filmmakers] imagined," Barbisch said of the real thing. Her unit, however, was not strictly a MASH, or Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. It was the next stop. In an evacuation unit, soldiers were prepared for flight to a base hospital elsewhere.

"Those were high-stress conditions," Barbisch recalled. "Every day somebody was dying, every day you were saving somebody's life. It was intense."

Added to the stress was the fact that two months before she arrived, a barrage of mortar fire killed a nurse.

"I learned more in that year than at any other time of my life," she said. Many soldiers, American and Vietnamese, came in with mortal wounds and hospital staff only had minutes to prepare. "They'd pick them up fresh from the battle and drop them on our doorstep."

Dr. Harold Ciccarelli, 74, a retired anesthesiologist, worked with Barbisch at St. Francis Hospital in the early 1970s while she studied anesthesiology and then worked as a nurse anesthetist. He remembered Barbisch as a highly motivated, cooperative, yet take-charge nurse. Her promotion was typical, Ciccarelli said.

"It doesn't surprise me," he said of her career success.

Barbisch's work consulting with U.S. officials, including Assistant Secretary of the Army Reginald Brown, regarding anti-terrorism didn't surprise him either.

"It's the kind of work a nurse anesthetist does," he said. "We [anesthetists] were highly involved in triage. We have to figure out problems, deciding who to treat first."

The anti-terrorism work takes Barbisch around the world. She first got into it after writing her 1999 doctoral dissertation on chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism based on four domestic terrorism events.

On Sept. 11, Barbisch was in Ankara, Turkey, briefing State Department personnel on the aftermath of terrorism. Her supervisor, Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, died in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

"When it happened, I remembered what the secretary of defense always told us: 'It's not a matter of it happening. It's a matter of when.' We always hoped we'd be able to stop the when," Barbisch said.

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