Donna Fernald’s Telluride story starts in 1978, when she arrived in the valley from California. She raised a family with her husband, Terry, while developing her career in real estate. Having earned her EMT Basic and EMT-I qualifications in the early 2000s, she knocked out nine pre-requisite nursing classes over seven years, taking online classes at Regis University in Denver. In many ways, her story is similar to that of many who’ve made their home here. But something made her look within to find a new direction.
“Everybody goes through their little crises, and mine was that it was time for me to look at my heart and get some empathy in my life,” Fernald said.
When her youngest daughter graduated high school, Fernald moved to Denver in 2009 to become the oldest graduate of her nursing class at Regis in 2011.
“I graduated summa cum laude which is reflective of being an older learner,” she said. “I was driven to prove myself.”
Once she graduated, Fernald moved to Grand Junction where she enrolled in a year-long trainee program at St. Mary’s Hospital (SMH), working in all the medical and surgical departments. She worked the neuro-trauma and emergency room departments for two years after that but was only offered night shifts, so she decided to return to Telluride to work fill-in shifts at the Telluride Regional Medical Center’s (TRMC) ER.
At the time, the med center’s Dr. Sharon Grundy had located a home health company — Pasco Southwest out of Cortez — that agreed to support a nurse in the Telluride region.
“But service was super-inconsistent because the nurse had to drive over Lizard Head through snowstorms and maybe that nurse would make it, maybe not,” Grundy said. “And Pasco wouldn’t do hospice care.”
After three years at TRMC, Fernald signed on with Pasco to conduct skilled nursing home healthcare, visiting patients from Telluride to Norwood for wound, palliative and post-operative care where she treats the whole patient, helps manage pain and keeps patients comfortable.
Hospice, Fernald’s true passion, is different in that it only treats patients who are at end-of-life.
“For hospice care, patients need to have been given a diagnosis of six months or less to live,” she explained. “The nice thing about having a hospice organization is that it’s supposed to pay for everything. Once you’re signed up in hospice, the nurse can stay at your house for eight hours if you need that and that nurse gets paid.”
More recently, Fernald began working for a hospice organization out of Montrose called Touch of Care, (TOC) in addition to working home healthcare for Pasco. And, while nursing, Fernald kept up her real estate career, a job that gave her the economic freedom to continue nursing. Because TOC pays for all driving time, mileage and nursing time anywhere she goes, Fernald now visits a hospice patient in Nucla once a week.
“Last year I went six months without a patient. And then I had a new home health patient for three weeks in January,” she said. “And then I had eight patients in March as soon as COVID hit.”
Dr. Grundy asked if Fernald could be available to see some of TMC’s more vulnerable patients in their homes to avoid making them visit the medical center.
“As we shifted into COVID-19, I had a couple of people going through chemotherapy, I had some really frail people — older — who, I’m like, man, I don’t want you coming down here,” said Grundy. “If you’ve got a significant medical problem, you should be practicing stay-at-home. If Donna can come to your house and do [home healthcare], why wouldn’t we do that?”
Fernald has since made home health calls newborns, patients with cancer, asthma, pneumonia, and has called on people recovering from surgeries. She’s conducted blood draws and ostomies, witnessing conditions more varied than what she saw in the hospital.
“I’m seeing many of the patients I’m seeing now because of COVID,” she said. “Because they are now homebound. With home health, you have to be homebound or dependent on somebody else.”
Even though Fernald is protecting vulnerable patients from contracting COVID-19 behind the scenes, Grundy considers her a “front line worker.”
“She’s been essential, especially for my people who are going through chemo or are coming from surgery,” said Grundy.
Grundy added that Fernald is especially effective at her home healthcare work because she is “flexible, creative and unbelievably committed.”
“I think it’s a really cool way to take care of people because you get to see them in their home environments and that adds a lot of insight into how people are able to take care of themselves or how their family’s taking care of them,” said Grundy. “And you get to see part of their life which you don’t see in a clinic.”
It’s the connections Fernald makes with patients and their families in this setting that truly satisfy. And while she’s lost around a dozen patients over the years, she believes that when someone is dying, to be invited into their home to help out, is a privilege.
“This is literally the best thing I have ever done for my community,” said Fernald. “Because I go to people’s houses whom I’ve known for 40 years when they need help. And I cannot tell you what a blessing and an honor it is to be invited into someone’s home.”