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Love notes from war zone save hospital’s life

Now the back, back story of University Medical Center’s remarkable financial turnaround can be told.

Actually, a long-distance love story that played out against the backdrop of the war on terror is behind it all.

In June I reported how UMC — which lost up to $70 million annually and was in danger of closing — had come to operate in the black under CEO Mason VanHouweling, who took the post at the end of 2014.

While Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak praised VanHouweling’s financial acumen and VanHouweling praised the hospital’s governing board, insurance providers, and employees for the fiscal turnabout, the name of a key player in what happened — VanHouweling’s wife, Denise Pietri VanHouweling — didn’t come up.

Yet as VanHouweling himself admits — in all fairness, his wife didn’t want to be in the spotlight — if he hadn’t fallen in love with then Denise Pietri while he was in Afghanistan and married her six months after he got back to the states, it’s doubtful he would have had the support he had later need to make taxpayer-supported UMC solvent.

What makes their love story unique is that it was basically all business at first. They didn’t even have a first kiss until seven months after they met in Sebring, Florida.

He arrived there from Orlando in July 2002 to run the business office at a hospital where Denise headed quality control.

“We only talked about business,” Denise VanHouweling said recently. “We did go out to lunch once, but we didn’t even hold hands. And then a month after he arrived, his Air Force Reserve unit was called up. We hardly knew each other. We had a half hug when he left.”

She wasn’t sure how serious to take his suggestion that they ” stay in touch.”

In August 2002, then-Capt. Mason VanHouweling was in Afghanistan as U.S. troops tried to find Osama bin Laden in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was there to help direct air medivacs.

It wasn’t until two months later, after learning Mason had gotten in touch with some other people at the hospital by email, that Denise emailed him on Oct. 23. She gently chewed him out a little on their first email chat:

“Mason, You haven’t emailed me so I had to ask for your email address … I understand that things are not so nice for you.”

“DENISE!!!! YOU ARE ALIVE!!! … I haven’t forgotten about you … I could not remember how to spell your last name. I know that is a poor excuse.”

“I am glad we connected … you are pretty popular (at Sebring hospital) … In fact, your pictures are posted close to a woman’s desk … I will send cheery notes … Your friend, Denise.”

By Oct. 31, Mason managed to make phone calls to Denise at work in addition to emailing.

In an email that day, Mason let Denise know how important she was: “Just to let you know that you were one of the two beings I called, the other … Mom.”

On Nov. 2, Mason wrote: “I want to call you at home but you did not say if it was okay.”

Denise, bless her heart, said it was OK. And whatever they said on the phone shifted the relationship to a higher gear.

“I really like listening to you,” she told Mason on Nov. 14. “ I miss you and don’t even know you.”

“Falling hard for you, too. I feel like a schoolboy, chasing the little girl I had a crush on in school. It is the best feeling.”

Nov. 22 — Denise: “Before I go to sleep tonite I want you to know that I care for you deeply. How this has occurred is beyond me.”

Nov. 26 — Mason signs an email, where he talked about marriage, “Love, Mason.”

Nov. 27 — Denise: “I miss you soooooo sooo. sooo … sooo … love, denise … thought about you all night.”

Nov. 30 — Denise wrote in her journal: “We … never shared a kiss but had already fallen in love!!! Wow!”

When Mason VanHouweling returned to Florida in February 2003, Denise met him at Tampa airport. They gave each other a full hug, but the kiss didn’t occur until after he was done with military paperwork.

They married in the Sebring hospital chapel in July 2003 with one guest. Few colleagues believed the marriage would work because they didn’t really know each other.

The couple now has two children, Arianna, 12, and Summer, 10, and two cats, Tico and Nina.

When VanHouweling — he’s now a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve — worked long hours to get UMC’s financial affairs in order, he said Denise understood, urging him to do whatever was necessary to turn around UMC.

“I couldn’t have done it without Denise.”

Even in Sin City, love is a many splendored thing.

Paul Harasim’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday in the Nevada section and Monday in the Life section. Contact him at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273. Follow @paulharasim on Twitter.

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