Her Red Cross work reconnects Deb Harper with patient care

Photo of Deb HarperPreparing for retirement after a fast-paced 30-year career in nursing, Deborah Harper imagined easing into the world of volunteer service only after a careful evaluation process. “I felt I was too young to do nothing, but I also wanted to have some fun with my new free time.”

She and husband Steve, himself preparing for retirement after a career as a firefighter-paramedic, initially considered volunteering for the Peace Corps. “But we decided we didn’t want to be away from home for that long,” Deborah recalls.

So the couple took their “what’s next” quest to the American Red Cross in downtown San Francisco. “The work seemed like it might be a good fit for us, so we signed up and began to take the training,” Deborah says.

It didn’t take long for “Deb” to apply that training to a real-life disaster.

“It was July 2013, and Stephen and I were driving back from Tahoe after spending the 4th there when I got a call from the Red Cross,” she says. “We were partway through our orientation, but there had been nothing really fast-moving about the process.”

But, beginning with that call on July 6, the pace of Deb’s onboarding suddenly accelerated. That’s the morning that Asiana Airlines Flight 214, carrying 307 people from South Korea to San Francisco, crashed during its final approach to SFO. Three people died and nearly 200 people were injured, many of them seriously.

“I was asked if I could help in health services,” she says. “I spent the better part of the next week working out of a makeshift nursing and mental health clinic established inside a hotel near the airport. Initially, I was going to hospitals, trying to find out where people had been sent and how we could help them.”

Deb’s Asiana Airlines assignment — basic first aid, assessment, and referral — was eye-opening enough, she recalls. “But I also saw the bigger picture of how a large operation involving the Red Cross can work; how responses happen. It was very, very impressive.”

With that first disaster serving as a springboard for a new “job” with the Red Cross, Deb has never looked back.

In her new work home, she has become a go-to person in casework, has served as the Disaster Chair for San Francisco, helped the San Francisco team navigate a number of reorganizations in recent years, has served as the Direct Services Administrator for San Francisco, has served as the Nursing Network Regional Nurse Lead, and was recently promoted to a new deployment role of Health Services Manager.

Deb’s work in all of these areas landed her one other title in 2017: Clara Barton Award recipient. The award, given to her at San Francisco’s annual Volunteer Recognition Event, is the highest the American Red Cross bestows upon volunteers. It recognizes meritorious service in volunteer leadership positions held over a period of years.

While immensely proud to have received the award, Deb chuckles when she thinks of the multiple roles that made her a candidate for honor. “My Red Cross world is a bit schizophrenic,” she laughs. “I like to say I’m never alone in my Red Cross world.”

While her Red Cross jobs may be numerous, the work has been satisfying in one very important way. “I had a great career with Kaiser for all of those years,” she says. “But the job I was working at the end of my time with them was much different than the one I had when I started working there 30 years earlier.”

How had it changed? “My former job had evolved to the point where I was increasingly removed from caring for and working with patients,” she says.

But in her “retirement” position, Deb has been thrilled to rediscover the essence of nursing. “It was the direct contact with patients that had made me want to be a nurse all those years ago,” she says. “With the Red Cross, I am experiencing that again.”