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This Life with Gracie: Grady’s chief nursing officer straight outta Compton

In a fifth-floor conference room at Grady Memorial, away from the constant sound of medical devices, doors slamming and whispered conversations, the hospital’s chief nursing officer indulges a visitor’s question.

What makes you special?

Without hesitation, Jacqueline Herd insists she isn’t special at all.

“I just think I’m blessed,” she said.

There’s no doubt Herd, 58, has led a somewhat charmed life, but for the nearly 1,400 nurses for whom she is responsible, there’s little doubt their boss is anything but ordinary.

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Registered nurse Jacqueline Delisser certainly thinks so.

When Herd arrived two years ago, Delisser said, nurses were feeling lost and forgotten.

“They wanted someone to listen to them and she does that,” Delisser said.

Most of us can agree that traditional leadership generally involves the exercise of power by whoever is at the top of the pyramid.

By contrast, the servant-leader turns the pyramid upside down. Instead of people working to serve him, the leader is willing to share the power, to put the needs of others first and help them meet their full potential.

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At the end of the day, they exist to serve others.

That has been Jacqueline Herd’s mindset seemingly her entire life.

Not many people would’ve blamed Herd had she taken on the title “victim.” Growing up in Compton, Calif., a city in southern Los Angeles County where police routinely brutalized and humiliated African-American youths without provocation and where you’d be hard-pressed to find a school textbook past the 10th grade, it was next to impossible to be much else.

Herd, though, was determined not to become part of the system that said African-American women were welfare queens who’d never amount to anything.

Even when she became pregnant at age 16 and was forced to attend a continuation school, she never wavered.

“I always had a dream and vision of getting out of that community,” Herd said.

And so soon after giving birth to a son, Elvis Arnwine Jr., in the fall of 1976 and graduating from high school, she enrolled at Compton Community College and went to work as a medical assistant in a doctor’s office.

By then, Herd knew she wanted to become a doctor, but she also knew she had to support her son.

In 1980, she was accepted into a nursing program and continued to work two full-time jobs, including an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift in a hospital emergency room.

“I’d clock out, then go to school from 8 to 3,” she said. “Instead of getting lunch, I’d put my head on the desk and take a power nap. All I needed was 15 minutes and I was ready to go.”

In 1982, three years after her short marriage to her son’s father ended, Herd earned an associate diploma in nursing and, in the fall of the same year, enrolled at California State University at Dominguez Hills to pursue premedical courses.

While working nights at King Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles, Herd, just 22, solidified her reputation as a team player, someone who was always willing and ready to jump in and help others with their patient assignment.

“I loved being a nurse, and I realized early on the importance of teamwork,” she said. “There wasn’t anything I wasn’t willing to do.”

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It paid off big time.

Herd was tapped to fill the role of a relief nurse, in charge of all the nurses, many of whom were old enough to be her mother. In 1984, she left King Drew to become the charge nurse at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood, while also working full time at Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center.

Jacqueline Herd is chief nursing officer at Grady Memorial Hospital. “I realized early on the importance of teamwork,” she said. CONTRIBUTED (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In a chance meeting at her cousin’s hair salon one day in 1990, she met Charles Herd, and her personal life got a boost, too. The couple married a few years later on Aug. 21, 1993, and began building a family.

She was still at Robert F. Kennedy when the AIDS epidemic was taking hold of the country, and Herd realized why she wanted to be a nurse.

The fear and pain she saw in patients, many of whom showed up alone in the hospital emergency room, were palpable.

“I thought what if this was my brother?” she said.

She knew she’d want him to be treated with care and compassion, hallmarks of the care she has sought to share with not just her patients but the nurses she worked alongside.

Herd also realized the many things she could do as a nurse, and instead of continuing on the pre-med track, she decided to change her major and pursue advanced degrees in nursing. In 1999, she earned a master’s degree in nursing and certification as a family nurse practitioner.

Herd continued her upward climb on the career ladder, moving from charge nurse to pre-hospital care coordinator to director of Emergency Department to director of Nursing Administration to interim chief nursing officer and then permanent CNO.

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It was the perfect fit. Herd loved taking care of patients, but more than anything, she loved working in underserved communities like Compton because that’s where she saw the greatest need. High rates of diabetes. Hypertension. Stress.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“I was able to have the kind of heart-to-heart conversations with patients that were needed,” she said.

But Herd had had enough of the Golden State. In 2009, she, Charles and their then-9-year-old son moved to Atlanta, leaving their oldest children, a 43-year-old son and 38-year-old daughter, and six grandchildren behind.

After stints at the Atlanta Medical Center, Midtown Medical Center in Columbus and then earning a doctorate in nursing from Walden University, Herd joined Grady two years ago.

Even she sometimes marvels at her own path straight outta Compton to chief nursing officer, answering to hospital administrators and the federal government.

“When you lead by example, people in turn will give you 120 percent,” Herd said. “Knowing that, I just try to do what’s right. Every day when I’m coming in to work, I turn off my radio and give thanks to God for how far he has brought me.”

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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