Debra Terrio
Always an artist at heart, Debra Terrio did not pursue her passion until she retired from working as a nurse practitioner. ANTHONY INSWASTY


As a little girl in Minnesota, Debra Fogarty Terrio longed to be an artist, maybe an art teacher. She created sculptures in the snow. She drew whenever she could. Her mother, a sturdy Irish Catholic raising eight children on a farm, wasn’t encouraging.

“She wanted her girls to be nurses, not teachers,” Terrio says. “She thought we’d get married and pregnant and then have to quit.”

In the 1950s, visibly pregnant women were often not allowed to work around children.

“She felt we’d never get part-time work, either. Nurses could work right up until they delivered and always find jobs.”

In time, Terrio found a way to incorporate her dreams with reality.

Farm life held joys as well as challenges. Roaming virtually unsupervised on 375 acres with her twin brother, little sister and cousins was wonderful, but winter temperatures in Minnesota can plummet to minus 20 degrees. She and her twin started school at age 5.

“I think our mother wanted us out of the house – we were a handful!”

Deer painting
Working primarily in acrylics, Terrio says that the rich environment of Florida is an inspiration to her as she creates her art.

Terrio helped in the fields and garden as well as with a variety of livestock, on top of schoolwork and the ever-present women’s chores: cooking, cleaning, canning.

When Terrio was 13, her father died and the farm was sold. Her mother took a teaching job in town, with Terrio taking over most of the household duties. Although she worked as a lifeguard her junior year, a new manager wouldn’t hire her back.

“He said women weren’t ‘strong enough.’ “

After graduation, Terrio finished a two-year registered nurse program, followed by a federal program to create more healthcare opportunities for rural areas by training nurse practitioners. Terrio was the only student in her class with a two-year, rather than a four-year, degree but she maintained a straight-A average.

Some doctors were not enthusiastic about the NP program, believing that women wouldn’t be good candidates for the work or that they would undermine physicians. For a test, Terrio administered a neurological exam, diagnosing her patient with multiple sclerosis – and impressing the doctor who was surprised she had the skill to do so.

Terrio ran a county clinic 50 minutes away, referring serious conditions to doctors who came less frequently. Eventually, she served in a private clinic, a geriatric clinic and nursing homes. Many of her patients had no families for support, were poor or homeless.

It was emotionally exhausting work.

The Artful Fisherman
Terrio’s The Artful Fisherman portrays a successful pelican in bas-relief, which is a form of sculpture where the subject is depicted with minimal, but effective, depth.

One way Terrio found to maintain balance in her life was playing tournament racquetball. Another was through a program she and her husband, Jerry, created when their children were young. Her high school sweetheart, Jerry was more of a tech person than a musical one but together they produced and directed musical theater for three years, calling the program Hi-Tops after their first production. “Anyone who auditioned was given a role.”

After working in the medical field for 20 years, Terrio retired in 1995 and began art school. Jerry died unexpectedly seven years later and Terrio felt it was time to make some changes. Taking the yellow pages [“We still had them then.”], she flipped through, circling all the things she wanted to do – and then she did them. Dance lessons. Singing with jazz bands.

Terrio also helped care for daughter Melissa’s children. Eight years ago, she moved to Port St. Lucie to be near her son, Mike. “It was his sons’ turn to get to know their grandmother better,” Terrio says. “I love the diversity of the people down here. Most of them are encouraging and inclusive.”

A resident of King’s Isle in St. Lucie West, Terrio has put her farm training to work, installing appliances, building storage units and more.

“It takes me more time and I make mistakes, but YouTube makes a great reference.”

Terrio is also living her childhood dream. She has taught art at the Visionary School of the Arts, the Galleria, St. Andrews and the Fielden Institute for Lifelong Learning at IRSC. Working primarily in acrylics, her paintings may be seen at Bridge Road Fine Arts in Hobe Sound and in several St. Lucie Cultural Alliance exhibits in Fort Pierce.

She has also donated many paintings to area organizations to help with fundraising. And she’s begun writing a children’s book, which she will illustrate.

Still, sitting in front of a blank canvas or an empty page can be overwhelming.

“I always have a moment of doubt,” Terrio admits, “so before I begin, I pray. Doing things is worth the risk, though, whether you succeed or fail.”
She’s had 20 years as a nurse practitioner, followed by reimagining herself as an artist. If someone had approached Terrio eight years ago and told her all the things she’d be doing now, “I would’ve said he was nuts!” she says.

“Life is a journey. Detours pop up that turn out to be cool. Or they turn out to be not cool at all. I just keep on the journey. It’s been fascinating.”

Age: 70
Lives in: St. Lucie West
Occupation: Artist and art instructor
Family: Daughter Melissa, son Mike, five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren
Education: Registered nurse program, St. Mary’s; Nurse Practitioner certificate, University of Minnesota; art classes at Normandale College
Hobbies: Dancing, kayaking, bowling, singing
Who inspires me: “Anybody who rises above adversity. I know so many people who have done that, who grew up in orphanages or poverty and had every reason to turn out differently, but didn’t.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “People who know me well think I’m fearless because I do things, but I get nervous just like everyone else. I just think things are worth the risk. I’ll succeed or fail, but I have tried.”
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