20 Years of Compassion and Dedication

By: Alana Ridge

December 06, 2023

Poeth Kilonzo, Director of Nursing Oncology, poses for a photo while smiling in a conference room.

When you meet Poeth Kilonzo, Director of Oncology Nursing at Renown Health, you are immediately greeted with a warm smile that puts your mind at ease. Within the William N. Pennington Cancer Institute, Poeth enjoys a strong reputation among her employees and patients as someone they can always rely on, no matter how rough the tides may flow.  

As an incredibly humble oncology professional, you may not realize that behind that smile is the power of a best-in-class nurse and leader holding a 20+ year career of diverse nursing experience and leadership excellence – dedicating the majority of her service to Renown Health. 

Join us as we dive into Poeth’s unique journey through Renown. 

Finding Her Passion 

Ever since she could remember, Poeth has been a “people person.” Above all else, she cared for people – and she cared a lot. What better place for her to be than healthcare? 

After moving to northern Nevada from Kenya, she began working in private patient care working with home health and dementia patients while taking classes at Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) in 2000. One day, a patient asked her a question that would change the course of her career journey: Did you ever think about becoming a nurse? 

Driven by not only the words of encouragement of her patients and supervisors in home health but also the rallying support from her family and friends, including her husband and high school friend, who both have decades of experience interacting with nurses in healthcare (with her husband spending many of those years at Renown), Poeth knew this was the path she was meant to take. 

“That was it; it was like a light switch had flipped,” said Poeth. “I switched to nursing overnight.” 

According to Poeth, TMCC’s nursing program offered her an incredibly supportive environment, which was especially important as she was a young mom at the time. Working in healthcare, going to nursing school and raising a family all at the same time is no easy task, but to Poeth, this was her calling. 

“Regardless of my path, I knew I wanted to be a nurse that was close to patients, sitting with them and holding their hand throughout their treatment,” said Poeth. 

During nursing school, Poeth completed clinicals at several hospitals in Reno – three of them were at Renown Health (known as Washoe Medical Center at the time). What immediately stood out to her was the passion of the pediatrics unit, especially in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). 

“While I knew that pediatrics wasn’t going to be my arena, some of the best times in my life were during my pediatrics clinical,” said Poeth. “It opened me up to how welcoming Renown is.” 

While doing her rotations, nursing leaders helped Poeth and her fellow classmates discover Renown’s Nurse Apprentice program, an apprenticeship designed exclusively for local northern Nevada nursing students. One of those leaders asked her, “have you considered doing a rotation in oncology?” 

And another light switch flipped. 

“Bingo. I am becoming an oncology nurse apprentice,” Poeth recalls. And that’s exactly what she did.  

After her four-month apprenticeship ended in February 2002, she walked into her interview with Joanna Gold, who would end up being her supervisor and one of her greatest mentors until she passed away in recent years. With her experience and enthusiastic spirit on her side, Poeth fervently expressed her passion and interest in working in oncology. And Joanna saw all of that and more. 

In June 2002, Poeth was presented with a two-year oncology RN contract, which she easily signed – however, she knew right then and there but she was not going anywhere. Renown was her home, and oncology ignited the fire within her. 

“The nurses in this unit are part of what kept me here,” Poeth remembers. “These nurses would really do anything for their patients. The commitment and love they all had for one another truly was like family. It inspired me to learn more and give even better care to my patients." 

To Poeth, it didn’t feel like she was coming to work just to do a job – she was following her dreams. 

“You don’t think about the work you do; you think about the service,” said Poeth. 

From there, Poeth spent three years on the floor as an oncology RN and became a night shift supervisor in 2005. She was thriving. 

But this part of her journey was only the beginning. 

When Opportunity Arises, Take It 

In March 2007, Poeth and her husband welcomed their third child – and for her, working a day shift position would serve her the best at her current stage of life. This revelation led her down to Renown South Meadows Medical Center, where she became a staff nurse in Medical Telemetry. 

It was in the telemetry unit where Poeth contributed to one of the largest digital transformations Renown would ever go through: transitioning from paper records to electronic records on EPIC. 

From there, Poeth was inspired to get back into leadership in 2012 as the Supervisor of Clinical Nursing overseeing nurses, clinical outcomes and payroll in the medical/telemetry unit and intensive care unit (ICU). The timing of her leadership role lined up perfectly with her decision to take her skills to the next level, achieving a bachelor’s degree from Nevada State College in 2016. The timing of her degree lined up perfectly with what was about to come; she embarked on her first leadership role at Renown 

This is where she would happily stay for 11 years, eventually becoming the Manager of Nursing in telemetry and the ICU, noting that Renown South Meadows felt like a second home to her. 

“I wore many hats at South Meadows,” Poeth recalls. “From piloting back coding and handling compliance work to being on the patient floor and heading up South Meadows’ first high school hospital volunteer program, I got very involved. We had seven years without having a single nurse traveler in our unit." 

It wasn’t long before Poeth was inspired to expand her education even further, and she graduated in January 2018 with a master’s degree in nursing clinical leadership from Western Governors University. Thanks to Renown’s educational assistance programs, our health system invested directly in Poeth’s education with tuition reimbursement and a $1,000 nursing scholarship. 

Soon after celebrating her achievement, Jennifer Allen Fleiner – who was the Director of Nursing at Renown South Meadows at the time – asked Poeth yet another question that would bring her to the precipice of another career detour: “Have you ever considered transferring from South Meadows to Renown Regional?”  

Moments later, Alicia Glassco, Director of Nursing for Renown Regional, asked her the same question, noting that the hospital’s neurosurgery unit needed the leadership of someone just like Poeth. 

“It took me a whole week to make a decision, because this was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” said Poeth. “I truly loved South Meadows. After that week, my leader told me, ‘you know what, Poeth? You’ve reached your pinnacle. You need and deserve a new challenge. Learn from this new team and teach them something. I think you have a huge opportunity for growth.” 

So, Poeth decided to apply for the position and shadow the neurosurgery team, where unlike her unit, the majority of the team at the time were travelers. But this was a challenge Poeth was up to – so she was accepted into the role. 

“At the end of the day, these patients deserved consistent care,” Poeth emphasized. “I knew I had to take this position for the patients – they were the ones who sold me on this job. They are the reason why we are all here. It was important for me to be an advocate for them.” 

The big hills to climb didn’t slow down Poeth; in fact, the exact opposite happened. Within her first year in the neurosurgery unit, her team onboarded 18 new graduates and replaced travelers. 

“We were hiring like crazy,” said Poeth. “My standing agenda at all section meetings focused on hiring and our quality metrics. I started having a relationship with our doctors. Once we created a strong doctor/nurse collaboration, our nurses started staying with us longer.” 

Everything on the unit was going great. 

Then, COVID-19 hit.  

“Since we had private patient rooms, our unit became the first COVID unit at Renown Regional,” Poeth recalls. “My whole staff that I had built up had to be distributed elsewhere. I started caring for COVID patients. We relied on our Infection Prevention team a lot. And at the same time, I was worried about my family in Africa.” 

Despite the stressful nature that the pandemic brought upon health systems everywhere, according to Poeth, she knew she had to continue on. 

“The neurosurgery team ended up merging with orthopedic trauma, which was very difficult,” said Poeth. “We went from 28 beds to 58 beds. The key to success here was training. Nurses are very resilient, and through training, we were able to stabilize the unit.” 

Noticing the opportunity for virtual demonstrations that were previously offered only in-person, Poeth spearheaded online trainings for nursing, physical therapy, mobility, head injuries and more, allowing teams across Renown to upskill in safe spaces. 

These programs continued throughout the pandemic, and Poeth was proud to be a figurehead through it all, helping to stabilize the unit while creating strong relationships with the entire team, many of whom followed her from Renown South Meadows to Renown Regional. 

Then, she gets another visitor – her Chief Nursing Executive – in her office with yet another opportunity. 

Have You Considered... 

In September 2022, Chief Nursing Executive Melodie Osborn walked into Poeth’s office with those three words that Poeth has heard for decades: “Have you considered...” 

“Before Melodie could even finish, I thought, ‘I have considered A LOT in my career!’” said Poeth. 

Melodie told Poeth that the William N. Pennington Cancer Institute was looking for a Director of Oncology Nursing, noting that this could be yet another growth opportunity for her and a chance for her to go back to her roots. 

“I had just celebrated my twentieth year at Renown; I knew this was going to be a decision I really had to think about,” said Poeth. “Everyone believed in me. Alicia Glassco told me, ‘Poeth, you are ready for this. Go for it.’ Once I applied for the position and started getting my updated chemotherapy certifications, I thought, ‘they are right; I got this.’” 

At this point in her career, Poeth had been hyper-focused on inpatient care, and this role would be her first time caring for patients in the outpatient setting. After going through the interview process, however, Poeth knew that this was where she was meant to be yet again – and colleagues she hadn’t seen in years reaffirmed that commitment. 

“I felt the most excited about the job when I toured the facility,” Poeth recalls. “I’ll never forget what one of the infusion nurses told me on my tour. She told me, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but I remember you; I came from Renown South Meadows, and you were so nice to me as I was precepting as a new nurse. Your kindness was unforgettable to me.’ The fact that people like her wanted me in the unit so badly inspired me to come back.” 

Soon enough, Poeth became the Director of Oncology Nursing, a position she still proudly holds to this day. Once she was hired, she immediately went into deep learning mode, mastering skills such as revenue integrity, credentialing and the insurance process. She attributes Supervisor of Infusion Kaitlin Hildebrand and Director of Radiation Oncology Services Susan Cox for helping her succeed. 

Shortly after assuming the position, Poeth noticed yet another opportunity for cross-training within the organization to combat short staffing – training nurses from the Float Pool to care for patients in Infusion Services. 

“Between May and July of this year, we trained six nurses from Float Pool to do infusion therapy services, which offered so much relief to my team; I am so thankful to Rendee Perry, the Manager of Nursing in our Float Pool unit, and her team for their support,” said Poeth. “My mission in outpatient oncology is to serve the staff and patient population and create those strong relationships." 

Poeth's efforts to circumvent nurse burnout go beyond cross-training – as a director, she is always there for her team members no matter what, leading with kindness every step of the way. 

“I never miss a 7:45 a.m. huddle unless I am in a ‘cannot miss’ commitment; I want my employees to always know that I am there for them and that they are cared for both on and off the job,” Poeth emphasizes. “I want them to feel like they are valued, their families are valued and their mental health is valued; after all, without my team, we cannot care for patients. It’s important for them to know that I am here to be a security blanket and that there is always something we can do to solve a problem." 

Today, Poeth enjoys a full team of core Renown staff members whom patients look forward to seeing – and the high patient satisfaction scores to prove it. 

“Our team is so established that patients feel comfort in knowing they are always going to know exactly who they are being treated by,” said Poeth. “We will always work to maintain that consistency.” 

Staying True to the Mission 

Renown’s mission of making a genuine difference in the health and well-being of our community resonates closely with Poeth. Before she arrives at the infusion unit every day, she asks herself: What can I do to make it easier for my team to deliver care? 

“It takes a village to deliver the care we do,” said Poeth. “Our nurses are priceless. You can’t place a monetary value on dealing with life and death every day. This is what inspires me. It’s all about helping each other out and keeping those relationships strong.” 

Maintaining those relationships on the floor, according to Poeth, requires one main ingredient: work-life balance. 

“I want my nurses to be able to balance sending their kids to kindergarten and giving their patients their first chemotherapy treatments,” Poeth emphasizes. “I genuinely care about their lives. It’s nice when you get to know your team’s children, grandkids, spouse and hobbies. I’m grateful that Renown has given us the autonomy to foster that flexible environment within our teams. It is so rewarding to have such a strong impact on these employees.” 

To Poeth, it’s all about doing and then duplicating. Luckily for her team and infusion patients in northern Nevada, a new infusion center at Renown South Meadows is planned to open in the coming years as part of our commitment to expanding care. Her team is excited to grow their expertise down to south Reno – Poeth's original home hospital. 

“I strongly believe that as nurses, we are meant to be where we are meant to be at the time,” said Poeth. “Be kind to yourself and remember your ‘why.’ Take advantage of the opportunity you have.” 

To all nurses (and future nurses) out there, Poeth wants you to know that you are welcomed and valued. You are saving lives every day, and to her, that is worth everything. 

“Always remain focused, even throughout all the challenges. Never forget why you got into nursing. And lastly, always stay true to your own mission,” closes Poeth. 

Nursing at Renown Health

Angi, Renown ICU Nurse

Nursing at Renown Health

Nurses at Renown Health demonstrate a commitment to patients and their families through integration of care, clinical expertise, education, evidence-based practice and the pursuit of quality patient outcomes.
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