Dianne Barrett Gray ’84 of Naples, Florida, came to WCU in 1980 to study sport management, which was then a new program. “I’m a pioneer by nature, so it was great to take part in a program where professors encouraged us to think outside-the-box while in a participatory learning environment,” Gray said.
That pioneering spirit also led Gray to do statistics work for school and professional baseball teams during spring training as a teen, even though the roles were not then thought of as female-oriented. “I loved and still love math and science, and the physics of sport fascinated me, even as a kid,” she said. At WCU, Gray’s expertise led to a student assistant job with Steve White ’67, longtime sports information director. Gray kept stats for baseball, football and basketball, wrote press releases, had a sports-centric radio show, was a referee for intramural sports and started the student sport management club. “Dianne has a great personality and knew how to talk with people. It was obvious that she could have a good future in the sports field if she wanted it,” said White, now retired.
But, as happens for many, life turned on a dime when, 12 years after she graduated, Gray’s healthy 4-year-old son Austin was diagnosed with neurodegenerative brain iron accumulation disorders, which month-by-month took away his ability to walk, move, eat, talk or see clearly, while leaving his cognitive abilities intact.
“As much as I had hoped for a cure, it became evident one would not be found in time to save my son. Eventually, I had to tell him that though doctors worked hard every day to find a cure, there was not one…that we would do everything we could to keep him as pain-free as possible and that he was loved beyond measure,” she said. A core part of the journey with her son and healthy baby daughter was an immense deepening of her faith, which became the bedrock of many conversations with Austin, who died in 2005 at 14.
Throughout the journey, Gray saw the best and worst within the health care system. She saw a need for improved communication between providers and families, and a need for improved pain management. Additionally, her experience gave her a profound empathy for the dying and the grieving. In 2010, she founded Hospice and Healthcare Communications, which builds business collaborations and projects that help seriously ill patients and families. She also owns a speakers’ bureau and works with thousands of people annually on a one-to-one basis, helping them to find resources, as she crosses the globe as a speaker, journalist and researcher.
“I try to do what I can, where I can, to help make life better for people. It’s not about saving people. It’s about reducing emotional, physical or spiritual suffering where possible,” Gray said.
Gray also serves as president of the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation, named for the iconic psychiatrist who authored “On Death and Dying,” which Gray studied at WCU. Gray continues to write for books, gives inspirational keynotes on palliative care research and does frequent TV and radio interviews. Her latest collaboration is with Olivia Newton-John, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Amy Sky for the “Liv On” album, which features songs about healing, grief and hope. Most important to her, though, is the message she shares with all: “While life may end, love lasts.”