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Profiles in Community: Donna Audet

DONNA AUDET, WHO recently retired following a 40-year career as office manager for Porter Women’s Health in Middlebury, brought a special touch to her managerial responsibilities in a Middlebury medical practice.

Donna ran a tight ship, and as the captain of that ship, she set the tone for how things were going to run — very professional but equally warm and embracing. In an office of over 20 women, it was a well-oiled machine with very little drama.
— Dr. Jodi Brown

MIDDLEBURY — Donna Audet was working at Burlington Savings Bank in Middlebury in September of 1980 when she received a call from the late Dr. Alan Ayer, who had taken her through her first pregnancy just six months earlier. Ayer this time wasn’t calling to check up on Audet’s child.
“He asked me if I might be interested in coming to work for him,” Audet recalled.
She didn’t have to be asked twice. Audet gave her notice at the bank and began working for Ayer on Oct. 1, 1980, running the front desk and scheduling patient appointments.
And the rest is history. A lot of it.
Jimmy Carter was in the last year of his presidency, and the U.S. men’s hockey team had only eight months prior stunned the Soviet Union at the Olympic Games in Lake Placid.
The physicians’ building on Porter Medical Center campus was still under construction. Ayer and Dr. James “Chip” Malcolm were part owners of the new structure, and initially ran separate practices at the facility before joining forces as “Addison Associates” in 1982. Porter Medical Center would eventually acquire Addison Associates in 2007.
“We started altogether on the same platform and worked in unison to create a practice that was not only serving women in Addison County, but a perimeter that would grow into Chittenden and Rutland counties, Warren and New York state,” Audet said. “It was really impressive.”
Addison Associates became more than a team; it was like family, according to Audet. Ayer and Malcolm had nurses that would stay with them for 25-plus years, she noted. And Audet would emerge as the much-respected organizational backbone of the practice, which continued to grow and adopted the name “Porter Women’s Health” around five years ago. 
“The longevity piece of it started from the beginning,” she said.
As the practice grew to more than 6,000 total patients, so did Audet’s duties. She retired this past spring as “operations manager.”
“It became busier as time went on,” she said. “Health care is every changing, and women’s health is 24/7, whether you’re in the office, or dealing with women who need surgeries at the hospital.”
With proficiency and seniority came respect. Practitioners often used Audet as a sounding board.
“The thing that was most important to me, as new people came into the office and the office continued to grow, was we all had to have respect for each other,” she said. “That was the first and foremost thing — it was a requirement, and it held true. I think that helped put out a positive tone to the patients and the community about the practice.”
Some patients would later become friends. Audet had a way of dealing with people that instilled goodwill, according to those who toiled with her.
“When you see folks often, especially following up on a pregnancy, there’s a lot of times where the anxiety is elevated,” she said. “Being able to offer general reassurance throughout is important. Sometimes it’s a few-words conversation and sometimes it’s ongoing. That was what was so great for me; knowing we all delivered the same message … The quality of care across the board was equal to all.”
She saw many babies. During the course of 40 years, Audet welcomed three generations of some Addison County families into the office.
“You deliver their babies and they grow, and you get into the next generation,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see families grow. It’s really quite wonderful.”

TIME AND CHANGE
Audet has seen a lot of changes through the years, in both medical technology and standard procedures in the care of expectant women.
When she first started, patient information was pretty much confined to paper and hand-held patient charts. One of her last big tasks before retirement was helping Porter Women’s Health transition to a new Epic electronic medical records system.
“That was probably the biggest challenge — probably because there was so much training,” Audet said.
Obstetric techniques and testing have also evolved through the years, she noted. Surgeries tend to be more laparoscopic than open. There’s more lab work, and diagnostic ultrasounds have become part of the care package. The ultrasounds are in part liability-driven, but have also become expected by clients, Audet said.
“It seems like there’s more intervention now than there used to be,” she said. “And many times, it’s because if you have the technology at your fingertips, folks are anxious to find out as much as they can.”
With many days of hard work now in her rearview mirror, Audet is ready to enjoy retirement. She and her husband, Rene, are preparing to relocate to North Carolina, where they’ll get a break from Vermont winters. They’ll be closer geographically to their two grown children and grandchild, and they’ll get a chance to bike, golf and hike year-round.
“Forty years seemed like a good mile marker,” Audet said of her career.
What will she miss most about working at Porter Women’s Health?
“The camaraderie and women in that office,” she said unhesitatingly. “It’s a very special place.”

ATTRACTED MANY FANS
Meanwhile, Audet continues to hold a special place in the hearts of her former coworkers. News that the Independent was writing a story about Audet generated heartfelt testimonials from people with whom she worked.
Malcolm, of course, was a big fan. He retired back in 2014. He’s disappointed that the COVID-19 pandemic precluded a big in-person retirement send-off.
“Donna was always professional, polite, effective and very friendly,” he said. “She was extremely supportive of Dr. Ayer, myself and the other people in the practice.”
Dr. Jodi Brown, a Porter Women’s Health provider, gave vivid perspective to Audet’s tenure.
“She had been doing her job as office manager for literally as long as I have been alive as a person,” she said. “In that time, if there was a baby born at Porter Hospital, over the previous four decades, in one way or another, she was involved in that woman’s care in the background.”
And she took her job very seriously, Brown stressed.
“She was omnipresent, aware of all the minutia, because she made it her business to know it,” Brown said. “She ran a tight ship, and as the captain of that ship, she set the tone for how things were going to run — very professional but equally warm and embracing. In an office of over 20 women, it was a well-oiled machine with very little drama.”
Audet, according to Brown, always made a point of asking co-workers about their families and interests.
“Not only was she the captain, in many ways she was also mom; making sure that everyone had a chance to eat, stocking the pantry in the break room, lending a listening ear and trying to find ways to make people’s lives easier,” she said. “She fiercely advocated for every person in the office for what she thought was best for them as well as the office as a whole.”
Audet testimonials from other Porter Women’s Health workers:
•  Heather Kidde, CNM: “She is such a wonderful, classy leader who dedicated so much of her life to women and families in our community. We will never be able to replace the dedication, leadership, work ethic and kindness that she brought to her role as office manager. Donna always listened to our concerns and supported us through work and personal challenges.
“She is greatly missed.”
•  Lana L. Gingras, lead office coordinator: “She was the kind of leader that made you look forward to go to work, always with a smile, there to lend an ear, give advice, talk about your family. She set the example that we were here for our patients; greeting them with a smile and small talk to make them feel comfortable. She was a quiet leader who always encouraged us to run with an idea that would improve our efficiencies or patient care, always encouraging us along the way. We are so excited for her to enjoy her retirement, but her daily presence is surely missed as a leader and friend.”
•  Sarah Hale, office representative: “I learned a lot about discipline, strength and the ability to lead a group of women with a strong but quiet leadership. She created a culture in our office where every employee’s perspective mattered and we all had a voice at the table. With good communication, valued employees and clear guidance we were able to operate a successful practice through many changes at Porter. Donna was always the first person into the office and the last person to leave, as the manager’s job was endless. Donna not only managed a successful practice, she was also our internal ‘human resource’ go-to person. There was rarely a time her office door was closed; she was always available to talk about work stressors, family stressors or just chat about the weekend. I think one of her greatest joys in her job was the connection with each one of us as a person, not just an employee. She knew that the root of a successful practice was to make us all feel valued, respected and to support the whole person. Donna is a gem of a woman: gritty, smart, fun, vulnerable, honest and hardworking.”
•  Catie Cannon, RN, lead nurse: “If you speak with anyone from our office, I would bet that you are going to hear a lot about the ways in which Donna cared for us, maybe even how she ‘mothered’ us. Which is accurate, for sure: She knew the names of all of our partners and our children and she kept track of our birthdays. She knew where we grew up and where our families went on vacation. As the first one in the door every morning, she welcomed us as we walked down the hall toward the aroma of the coffee that she had brewing. Instinctively, she just knew what we each needed. 
“It is the word integrity that has always come to mind when I think of, or describe, Donna. She always demonstrated a professionalism and calm that is unique in the medical field. She had high expectations of our team, but with those expectations came endless support and respect. She believed in the care that we provide the women and families of our community and she clearly understood what we needed in order safely, effectively and with the utmost kindness, provide that care.
•  Liz Hammel, RN: “As a patient of Addison Associates in OBGYN, when it was just Dr. Malcolm and Dr. Ayer, and having appointments at the office frequently when I was having my children (1999 and 2002), I remember thinking how amazing it was that Donna always remembered me when I came to the office and made me feel like I was the most important patient in the building. Of course, after working with her (she hired me in 2014 as an RN) I realized that this is Donna’s gift — the ability to put patients first and to base her decisions on what is best for them. 
“I miss her. I’m also happy she is enjoying her retirement while she’s still young.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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