Q&A: Canary Savage Girardeau Cert ’55 and Cassondra (Cassie) Dietrick ’19
The UW–Madison Nurses Alumni Organization (NAO) salutes alumni each year who have made significant contributions to the nursing profession. The most recent winners—Canary Savage Girardeau Cert ’55, who received the Distinguished Achievement Award, and Cassondra (Cassie) Dietrick ’19, who received the Outstanding Badger Nursing Award—serve as exemplary leaders in the profession and society.
Girardeau completed her Registered Nurse Certification at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing more than 65 years ago and is recognized as the first African American graduate of the School. She is presently a senior program associate at Summit Health Institute for Research and Education (SHIRE) in Washington, D.C., where she has brought her nursing expertise to the organization and has been instrumental in implementing Wellness Circles for District of Columbia residents with chronic conditions.
Dietrick completed her bachelor’s degree through the BSN@Home program in one year (average completion is two years) while managing the demands of a growing family, jobs, engagement in the Wisconsin Air National Guard, and a deployment to Afghanistan. She currently works as a nurse at UnityPoint Health–Meriter Hospital in Madison.
How are you currently engaged with the School of Nursing? Why do you choose to stay engaged with the School?
GIRARDEAU: I’m a member of the ‘alumni group,’ and keep up with the informational material they send so that I can keep current with news and events. I also travelled to Madison from my home near Washington, D.C., for the opening of the new School of Nursing and was treated to a tour and was able to meet with some current instructors.
DIETRICK: I am not currently engaged with the school of Nursing, but I am interested in joining the Nursing Alumni Organization. Upon graduation I was adjusting to a new normal of coming home from overseas and a new job in the NICU. I feel now I would have the ability to actively contribute to an organization that does so much for the nursing community and students.
What advice would you give to first-year nursing students?
GIRARDEAU: Take your training seriously! You will be faced with life and death decisions during your career.
DIETRICK: Find your motivation for going back to school and let that guide you through the struggles. I went back to improve my chances to obtain a position in the NICU and further my military career.
What advice would you give to recent graduates?
GIRARDEAU: Accept that your superior training, taught by nursing faculty and School of Nursing, has given you the tools you’ll need to be a successful leader; leadership skills that are essential to a successful nursing career.
DIETRICK: Use your degree to help improve the lives of others, keep challenging yourself and doing your research to improve the lives of your patients.
Who was your favorite instructor at the School of Nursing? Why?
GIRARDEAU: Though the names of my instructors, from 65 years ago, escape me, they are the ones who instructed on Public Health. That is the focus that most interested me, and that guided the path that I eventually followed in my career
DIETRICK: I never really had a favorite instructor, but I’m so grateful to so many of them who understood my challenges while deployed.
What was your favorite experience at the School of Nursing? Why?
GIRARDEAU: My favorite experience, by far, was my Public Health rotation, because I had discovered rather quickly that Public Health was the specialty that I was most interested in. Learning Psychological Nursing was also a great experience, as it opened my eyes to a side of nursing I knew nothing about.
DIETRICK: My favorite experience was my clinical at Meriter’s NICU. It allowed me to take the time to see if this was a specialty that was truly for me.
Why did you choose the UW–Madison School of Nursing?
GIRARDEAU: While attending Lemoyne College in Memphis, Tennessee, I was encouraged and convinced to move to Milwaukee, where my parents had moved to. There, I learned my college credits/experience would count at Marquette University Nursing School. However, when I subsequently married and got pregnant, I had to change schools and was fortunate enough to be able to transfer all of my credits to UW–Madison School of Nursing. This was an incredibly lucky twist of fate, as UW–M prepared me for the career I’ve had for 65 years+.
DIETRICK: I chose the UW–Madison School of Nursing because it is a prestigious program which offers educational experiences that allowed me to critically think and put into practice what I learned.
What’s the most rewarding part of being a nurse?
GIRARDEAU: There is NOT one, ‘most rewarding’ part. There are many, and they include interaction with my patients, the sense of help and hope I can give someone at their most vulnerable, and the feeling of self-worth I’m able to attain caring for others.
DIETRICK: The most rewarding part of nursing is helping others. To advocate for those who can’t or don’t know how to advocate for themselves. To improve the lives of others.
What’s the biggest challenge facing nurses today?
GIRARDEAU: The biggest challenge facing nurses today is just ‘keeping up’ with new diseases, new treatments, and new technology. Also, in this unique time in our lives, it is a huge challenge to continue to serve our patients, and yet remain healthy and safe from COVID-19.
DIETRICK: The biggest challenges that I have faced as a nurse is trying to find the best way to adapt your communication skills to each patient in order to provide the best care and create a team including the patient or family. A team approach lets the patient understand that you are working with them to provide the best possible outcome and allows them to have a say in their treatment. Care can be more seamless without as many conflicts if everyone is able to find a way to work together as a team.
Who is your favorite TV nurse? Why?
GIRARDEAU: I did not watch much television and didn’t even see a TV until I was 19 or 20 years old. My recollection is that in the 40’s, there were no TV nurses. The only one I know of, because my kids told me, is Julia, played by Diahann Carroll. As an African American woman nurse, she would have been a good role model for me as I embarked on my studies and career.
DIETRICK: I don’t have a favorite TV nurse, but I would enjoy one who could find humor in their day. A nurse who is exhausted and hustles to do the best job just like all of us out there do despite our own daily challenges. Someone who advocates for the patients to find new and alternative ways to practice within their scope of practice. I’d love to see someone like all of us out there, someone real.