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Bayou Icon | Aim for the Stars

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Icon
Feb 28th, 2023

photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK

From her childhood, Diana Gentry Breen dreamed of becoming a nurse and wearing a crisp, white uniform. Most Halloweens, Diana would costume as a nurse. As she grew up, that dream turned into reality. Diana graduated from nursing school, and later continued her medical studies and became a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA). She helped establish one of the first Nurse Anesthesia businesses in Louisiana (Anesthesia Services Inc.) which was CRNA owned and operated. In 2017, Diana partnered in opening the LaArk Recovery/Addiction Center in Union Parish. Today this wife, mother, businesswoman, and medical professional successfully juggles her time among drug rehabilitation work, anesthesia administration, and family life. For her lifelong dedication to helping others in pain (physical and mental) in our region, Diana Gentry Breen is our March BayouIcon.

Surprisingly to some, Diana Gentry Breen does not come from a family filled with other medical professionals. What she does come from is a family filled with love, faith, encouragement, and a work ethic unmatched by many. Diana’s father, the late Herschel Alvis Gentry, Jr., was born in Monroe and attended Ouachita Parish High School and ULM (then Northeast Louisiana University) where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in business and was a member of the Kappa Alpha Order. He owned and operated New York Hardware and Furniture on DeSiard Street for over 60 years, taking over full operations when his father retired (at age 92!). Today Diana’s brother, Stewart, runs the company – the third generation Gentry to do so.

Diana’s mother, Barbara Elliott, was also born in Monroe and attended Neville High School and ULM. She played clarinet in both institution’s bands. She earned a B.Ed. and taught school at Lexington Elementary for a number of years. It was while teaching there that she met Herschel, with a little help from one of her favorite students. Becky Huenefeld (Harrod) insisted that Barbara go out with Becky’s Uncle Herschel. “It was a match made in Heaven,” Diana says.

A “Fairy Tale” Childhood
Diana spent what she calls a “fairy tale” childhood, growing up on Pargoud Boulevard surrounded by family, good friends, and neighbors. “We played nightly games of kickball and kick-the-can as well as taking bike rides around the neighborhood in the evenings,” she recalls. 

When Stewart and Diana were born, their mother became a stay-at-home mom. The family always sat down to a home-cooked meal Monday through Thursday. Then it was the Gentry tradition to go to Piccadilly Cafeteria on Friday night, El Palino’s or Taco Bandito on Saturday night, and Johnny’s Pizza on Sunday nights. Friends were always welcomed to all meals at home or away.

Aunts, uncles, and grandparents lived within a 3-mile radius of Diana’s Pargoud home, so there were many days that she would visit all of them. With such close proximity, it is no wonder that Diana remembers family gatherings during the holidays as being the very best of all. Thanksgiving and Easter were very special, but it is Christmas that holds the most memories for Diana. 

Diana’s mother would have their home decorated for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, and the family would gather to decorate the tree then as well. On Christmas Eve, all of the relatives would gather after church for dinner and gift opening. Christmas Day would be another gathering for more delicious food and celebrating love of family and friends. “One special memory was Christmas caroling up and down my street as we were pulled by horses in an open carriage,” Diana remembers with a smile.   

Turning Attention to Education
Diana was very active in school as a youngster and always made time for extracurricular activities that were important to her. At River Oaks School, she was a cheerleader in both junior high and high school. In addition, she played tennis and basketball, was named to the Honor Society, and served as a photographer on the school’s yearbook staff. Diana also was named Homecoming Queen and Miss River Oaks.

Chemistry and math were Diana’s two favorite subjects, with Spanish being her least favorite. Mary Walker, an English teacher at River Oaks, is the one that Diana remembers as inspiring her the most. “Mary inspired her students to learn, and she helped give me the self-confidence to become successful,” Diana says.

Her most memorable experience as a young girl happened in junior high when her father gamely took 7 junior high girls to Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington all by himself. “He rode every ride with us over that 3-day weekend,” Diana says. “We still get together and talk about that adventure!”

Following in her parents’ footsteps, Diana entered ULM and declared nursing as her major. As an undergraduate there, Diana also found time for extracurricular activities. She played intramural tennis and joined Kappa Delta Sorority. She served her KD chapter as vice president and later, president. Chemistry was again a favorite subject, but biology and anatomy/physiology were added as favorites. 

Diana also experienced study aboard with Tech Rome, enjoying visits to Greece, Switzerland, and Capri while taking classes. Later, just before starting anesthesia school, her aunt, Jean Huenefeld, took Diana to England.

Love and Loss 
When Diana remembers her parents, she remembers them for the remarkable mentors that they were for her. Both parents were very dedicated and involved in Monroe’s First United Methodist Church. Their faith influenced Diana’s, and gave her strength when difficult times came. In matters of social interaction, they both taught their children not to “judge a book by its cover.”  

As a result, both Stewart and Diana have developed a wide array of diverse friends. Finally, both parents encouraged self-sufficiency through their teachings and their own behavior.

From her father, Diana learned the importance of hard work – and that it pays off. He taught her the value of a dollar and how to live within one’s means. “His best lessons were to always see the positive in every situation,” Diana says, “and to treat people with kindness and respect at all times.”

Her mother taught Diana that she could do anything in the world if she put her mind to it. “Mother taught me to aim for the stars,” Diana says. “She knew that I had wanted to be a nurse from my early childhood days, and she continued to challenge me to become a nurse who takes on a larger responsibility – like anesthesia.”

At age 50, Diana’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had taught her daughter from a young age that life is not always fair, but that God has a great plan for each of those difficult teaching moments. One year later in 1988 — after months of surgeries, therapies, chemotherapy at MD Anderson – Diana’s mother passed away. Her death occurred one day before Diana graduated from nursing school. Even in death, important lessons were learned. “That experience was my earliest personal experience with medicine and healthcare,” Diana says. “This tragic situation inevitably put me in a position to understand the teamwork of medicine. Those healthcare teams made a lasting impact on my life and on my decision to continue my study in medicine.”

God has a Plan
Diana’s father met another remarkable lady, Lillian Riser Gentry, whom he married. Diana remembers her father often saying, “No man deserves 2 amazing ladies in their lives like I have been blessed to experience.”  Diana adds, “I felt the same and was lucky to have two amazing mothers in my lifetime.” Ironically, Lillian’s daughter Melissa and Diana were good friends and had been roommates at ULM.

Remembering her mother’s admonitions, Diana worked from 1988-1989 as an RN in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (under the direction of Dr. Terry King) at St. Francis Medical Center). From 1989-1992 she attended Nurse Anesthesia School at Big Charity Hospital in New Orleans, graduating as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. Diana’s career would find her working as a CRNA at area hospitals for the next 31 years. Along the way, she helped establish Anesthesia Services Inc. where she served as president for the business for 5 years. In 2009 she joined E.A. Conway Hospital (known as Ochsner LSU Monroe Hospital). In 2015 she was appointed to the Board of Directors there and chaired building and grounds – a significant challenge. “Our rundown safety net hospital has become one of the most beautiful, progressive hospitals in the state,” Diana says. “To this day, it shines above many private institutions with a variety of artwork displayed throughout the hospital.” 

A little-known passion of Diana’s is remodeling and decorating. That talent led to her assignment at University Health (which was later absorbed by Ochsner) and to a subsequent assignment as well. Based on her work at University Health, Diana was asked to revitalize a vacant nursing home and transform it into a drug rehabilitation facility in Marion. The LaArk Recovery/Addiction Center is now a productive facility serving those in need in north Louisiana and south Arkansas. “During this drug epidemic/mental health situation we are facing today, helping our country to combat this situation brings extreme satisfaction to my life and career.”

Her One and Only Blind Date
When Diana was encouraged to accept a blind date with a fellow named Mike Breen, she decided to go. It was a life-changing experience. “I will say it was true love at first sight,” she says. “We dated 3 months, got engaged, and married 5 months later. My mother always said that I would know immediately when it was the right one, and I did!”

The two have two entirely different careers, but both “take care of others” in their work. Mike is a Sales District Leader for Shelter Insurance and owns Shell Rapid Lube in Lakeshore. Each is the other’s number one cheerleader. They are a team, Diana says, “. . . and always make time for each other.” She adds, “It takes a very mature and committed mate to encourage a new business from ground zero as well as support my long work hours, call schedule, etc.”

Both are athletic, so Mike and Diana enjoy playing golf and exercising together. They can also be found doing yardwork, gardening, cooking (indoors or at the grill), and when possible, traveling. Within the past year, Diana has discovered pickleball. Mike hasn’t tried it yet, but his days are likely numbered until she gets him involved. They love to end their long days with an early evening pontoon boat cruise on Bayou DeSiard.

Today, the two are enjoying parenting their son (Connor, 19) and daughter (Lauren, 18). Connor is an LSU freshman in pre-nursing. He plans to go to anesthesia school. He is maintaining a 3.9 GPA and, like his grandfather, has pledged KA. Lauren is a senior at Neville where she has made a 4.0 every year and was selected for the Top 20 her senior year. She also played on the State winning tennis team during the past 2 years. She plans to study dentistry at LSU.

Family time is precious for this busy group, and so it is often spent traveling together. Favorite fall spots begin at the Ozarks and then on to the Colorado and Wyoming mountains. Spring and summer find them at Cabo and in the Bahamas. This past summer, however, brought a great European adventure to the 4 Breen’s. Traveling by plane, train, and boat, they made stops in Paris, Florence, Capri, Venice, and Rome. “Riding scooters out to the wine vineyards was a favorite among our kids!”

The family’s favorite night spot was St. Mark’s Square in Venice where they all enjoyed a night of music and entertainment. St. Mark’s Square was Diana’s favorite because it was there that she got to do her own impersonation of the “Bird Lady” from Mary Poppins. With a little birdseed in hand and a group of willing pigeons, she loved every minute on her own makeshift Venetian “stage!”

Giving Back
Diana and her brother are very close. “Stewart is 4 years older and has always played the big brother/father role in my life. There are not many days in my life that I can remember not talking to him,” she says. Today, she admits, she gives Stewart much of the credit for her own business success. She runs about 99% of her business decisions by Stewart before she makes them final. “He holds so many roles in my life, but most of all he is a great friend to me.”

In spite of the demands of their businesses, both Diana and Stewart have served their community through volunteer efforts and board appointments for years. Today both run their own businesses while serving on hospital boards. Stewart also is a member of the board of directors for Progressive Bank, and has previously served on the Bayou DeSiard Country Club board and is a past president of that group.

Diana spends most of her spare time focusing on the homeless and addicted part of this community and helping them get into treatment. “Giving my time brings much more reward than me spending time on myself,” Diana admits. “I support community volunteering and hope to see it come back in the post-COVID years. Volunteering brings the community together. As I become an empty nester, I will be looking for more ways to give back to our community.”

Diana has always had a passion for helping those in need and her life choices reflect that. From the earliest days of her medical career, she has been drawn to work with those who are vulnerable. She chose anesthesia because she loves being part of a team that helps others on their road to recovery. “From an emergency procedure to an epidural for labor pains, anesthesia is essential,” Diana explains. “Regardless of the circumstances, I enable people to receive the care they need in a pain-free environment. Confidently caring for patients in their most vulnerable moments is extremely rewarding. The most rewarding thing a professional can do is to help a fellow man in time of need.”

Helping manage the LaArk Recover/Addition Center has only added to her outreach. Through this work, she helps many vulnerable addicts free themselves from their addiction. Most rewarding to her is seeing “. . . financially disadvantaged patients get the incredible healthcare they deserve.” 

Not surprisingly, Diana doesn’t see retirement anywhere on her radar. She loves what she is doing, and feels that it is a calling from God to use her head, hands, and heart to help others. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Diana Gentry Breen has spent a lifetime doing just that.