A love story: 101 years of changing lives

This couple dedicated a combined century to serving people at Poudre Valley Hospital. Now, they're holding hands and heading into retirement together.
February 22nd, 2019
couple sits on chairs holding hands in the surgical unit waiting area
Donna and Paul Poduska met 50 years ago at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital. On Feb. 28, they will retire together. Photo by Kelly Tracer, UCHealth.

On a warm June evening in 1969, 22-year-old Donna Guintoni — in her white uniform, stockings and hat — walked through the back doors of Poudre Valley Hospital to start her first night shift as a newly graduated nurse.

As was customary then, she had no formal training before her first day about the hospital’s 44-bed surgical unit.

“She looked lost,” recalled Paul Poduska. “She was looking for the time clock and standing right in front of it.”

Acting like a hospital veteran, the third-year orderly who was just 24 at the time, directed Donna to her unit. She was unimpressed, but eventually Paul would win her heart.

For more than half a century, Donna and Paul Poduska have continued to walk through the doors of Poudre Valley Hospital. And next week, they’ll walk out together, retiring with a combined 101 years at the Fort Collins, Colorado, hospital.

In those 50 years, the Poduskas have brought their warmth to patients, while driving progress for the hospital. Donna was a fierce force behind strong nursing collaborations and advancements. And Paul helped create the hospital’s safety and infection-control policies.

The start of a career

donna in a graduation gown standing next to her mother
Donna Poduska with her mother after receiving her undergraduate degree in nursing from Montana State University. Photo courtesy of the Poduska family.

Donna had visited Fort Collins over spring break and was hired on the spot at Poudre Valley Hospital, with a commitment to return a few days after getting her undergraduate in nursing from Montana State University. Having grown up in Livingston, Montana, she had worked summers at Yellowstone National Park’s medical clinic, but was new to hospitals.

Paul, who was raised in a military family and had lived all over the world, was working in the hospital’s emergency room while attending Colorado State University, pursuing degrees in microbiology and environmental health.

After being directed to her unit by Paul, Donna went about learning her new responsibilities, which included everything from mixing medications to cleaning beds. She also learned what she wasn’t allowed to do: start IVs, put in a male patient’s catheter or enter a psychiatric room without an orderly.

So, when she needed to care for a psychiatric patient that first night, an orderly was called in to provide her with protection.

And there was Paul again. Their second meeting confirmed Donna’s earlier suspicions. “I didn’t like him,” she said with a smile.

The night shift

Still, the night crew was a “thick group,” Donna said, so she and Paul soon became friends.

donna poses with paul, who is holding a birthday cake
Donna and Paul Poduska in the 1970s. The young couple met at Poudre Valley Hospital, and after three years of dating, married in 1972. Photo courtesy of the Poduska family.

The hospital had only three patient-care units at that time: orthopedics, obstetrics and surgical. At night, only two nurses were on duty in each unit. The ER, located in a small room, had only one nurse. Staff would regularly see each other, swap stories and make after-work plans while grabbing something to eat in the small cafeteria.

A few months later, Paul asked Donna out on a date. He took her to the Denver Zoo. He’d packed cheese and a bottle of wine, but he’d forgotten a corkscrew. He managed to force the bottle open with his pocket knife.

Despite the floaters in her wine, Donna said she enjoyed Paul’s company, and the two continued to date for the next several years.

Growing careers, growing together

“For a while, we didn’t tell anyone at the hospital that we were dating,” Donna said. “But we found out later that they knew. See, Paul would come through with the bedpans … then a few minutes later they’d see me go through the same doors.”

Walking through the same doors together never lost its luster. As their liking grew for each other — they were married in 1972 and had two children born at Poudre Valley Hospital — so did their love of working at the hospital and advancing their careers.

“We never thought of going anywhere else,” Donna said. “We were thankful for our jobs. This was our home. We knew everyone. And we liked Fort Collins.”

Donna’s career

donna with her graduation gown and cap posing with two kids and mother
Donna Poduska poses with her children and mother after getting her Masters in Nursing Administration. Photo courtesy of the Poduska family.

About three years into her career, Donna moved into management. She was the surgical unit’s head nurse and continued part time with bedside nursing. During the next four decades, she held leadership roles in surgical, quality assurance, specialty services and resource services.

Donna was one of the hospital’s first nurse leaders to earn a graduate degree in nursing administration, and she went on to be instrumental in helping the hospital earn national nursing certifications.

She pushed for policies that empowered nurses and grew collaborative practices. And because of her efforts, nurses were given more complex tasks, such as starting IVs. She also was heard when she demanded gloves be worn by nurses, not just surgeons.

“I have been witness to Donna’s passion for excellence in the practice of professional nursing and excellence in the delivery of high-quality patient care,” said Kay Miller, chief nursing officer of UCHealth Greeley Hospital, who first met Donna 38 years ago when she started at Poudre Valley Hospital.

“A warm smile, a huge sense of pride in her profession and her dedication to serving at a state, national and international level are attributes that distinguish Donna’s exemplary career.”

Fostering innovation

Donna said that Poudre Valley Hospital’s innovative culture helped foster her leadership.

donna with her hand on paul's cheek as people stand and clap
Donna and Paul Poduska getting a standing ovation during a nursing awards dinner. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

“We were always empowered to manage our practice,” she said. “If there was a problem, we’d discuss it with upper management and participate in finding the solution. We had the ability to make changes and to make things better.”

In 1998, while serving her second stint as interim chief nursing officer, Donna learned about the Magnet Recognition Program. She knew it was something her hospital could achieve.

Magnet had been created five years earlier by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. And to achieve this gold standard in nursing excellence, hospitals have to provide an environment that cultivates innovation, education and collaboration within the field of nursing; have nurse-driven committees; and maintain strong research and quality components.

“I knew we already had all these things in place,” Donna said. “I didn’t have any doubt we were Magnet.”

In 1999, leaders at Poudre Valley Hospital sent in their first Magnet application. It included four sets of 23 3-inch binders. The cost of mailing was more than the application fee.

And in 2000, the hospital became the 18th ever to be Magnet-designated, right alongside Mayo Clinic and Cedar-Sinai in Los Angeles.

In 2011, Kevin Unger, CEO and President of Poudre Valley Hospital, hired Donna for the position of chief nursing officer.

“It was one of the best moves I ever made,” Unger said. “The way she’s gets work done is pretty special. It happens almost magically.

“She has such a steady, calm, influencing force.”

Her passion for nursing excellence extended beyond the hospital as well. For 19 years, she has been a Magnet appraiser and plans to continue that role for a few more years. And she served on several other state and national nursing boards and committees.

She’s not leaving UCHealth altogether, either. She will continue as a resource as other UCHealth hospitals work to achieve nursing excellence through Magnet and other recognition programs.

“Thank you, Donna,” Miller continued. “It’s been a great ride. You’ve touched thousands of lives and influenced hundreds of careers. Your legacy will continue to help us thrive.”

Paul’s career

As Paul looks forward to retirement, he’s excited about a “long list of nothing.” And with one more year in health care than Donna — 51 years compared to Donna’s 50 — maybe he deserves it too.

poduska family photo
Paul and Donna Poduska and their family in Bonaire. The couple goes to the Caribbean island annually to scuba dive. Photo courtesy of the Poduska family.

Paul was hired on the spot in 1968 as an orderly after assuring the director of nursing he had put in a catheter before. As there were no doctors staffing the overnight shift, it was Paul’s responsibility to assist the one ER nurse. He boasts nursery experience too, said Unger, who himself was born at Poudre Valley in 1969.

“Paul claims that he rocked me as a baby and dropped me by accident,” Unger said with a grin.

Ad shows paul and donna and reads, It's a love story, pure and simple.
Donna and Paul Poduska once appeared in an ad together. Source: UCHealth.

In 1972, Paul was one of the first in the area to get his certification as an emergency medical technician. He still carries the original card in his wallet.

One July evening in 1976, Paul arrived at work and noticed dark clouds to the west over the foothills. The rains came shortly after. Paul remembers a patrol car racing to the ER bay, horn honking. In his car was a young woman, stripped down to only a muddy bra. They carried her into the ER.

Moments later, a helicopter arrived with another Big Thompson Flood victim. Paul raced the gurney across the parking lot in the pouring rain. He wheeled the patient into the ER next to the first victim. It turned out that the two girls, who were found about a mile apart from each other, had been in the same car with two other friends. They were attending a CSU camp when they decided to head toward the canyon to see the floodwaters. Their vehicle was swept away. Both girls survived, but Paul never found out what happened to their friends.

During the 1970s, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created the National Nosocomial Infections Surveillance, and it was then that Paul began developing a specialty in preventing infections.

He took the two-week course and began his new position as a “preventionist” in 1977, which did come with one perk. He was the first one in the hospital to get a computer. Per the CDC guidelines, Paul had to spend 50 percent of his time researching and the other 50 percent monitoring hospital infections and diseases. That meant sending the CDC a floppy disk of the hospital’s data each month.

And Paul’s dedication to disease prevention has saved lives, Unger said.

“We benchmark ourselves against the top 10 hospitals in the United States for our infection disease rates,” Unger said. “Paul has done a great job to keep those rates low. That’s what he’s dedicated his life to.”

Paul is a nationally-known expert in his field, Unger said, but added jokingly that he’s not the best person to sit next to at a sushi restaurant if you want to enjoy your meal.

A happy ending

Today the cafeteria is still a common meeting place for Paul and Donna. They regularly enjoy lunch together. Their conversations are a mix of business — what needs to be done that day, what issues might need addressing — and pleasure — which grandchild has a soccer game or who’s cooking what for dinner. But the two have a strict code they live by that they said has kept both their professional and personal relationship afloat.

couple stands in hallway of hospital
Paul and Donna Poduska met at Poudre Valley Hospital in 1969. Now, after 101 years of combined service, they’ll retire together on Feb. 28. Photo by Kelly Tracer, UCHealth.

“His business is his business, and my business is my business,” Donna said. “We have clear boundaries and wouldn’t step in on each other’s territories.”

Although those lines might be clear for them, the space that they both influenced during their five-decade-long tenure at Poudre Valley Hospital extends far beyond those walls.

And many colleagues and patients alike will shed a tear the last time the Poduskas walk out the door.