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‚ÄčKincardine native Donna Lackner remembered as a pioneer in public health nursing

November 30, 2023

Donna Mae Lackner (nee Gazell/Goessel), formerly of Kincardine, died peacefully, Nov. 13, 2023, at the Victoria Village Senior Living Community in Barrie. She was 89.

The only child of Thomas “Harold” Gazell (1900-85) and Caroline “Mae” Calvert (1904-68), Donna was born and raised in Kincardine where she completed her high school education.

She began training to become a nurse at the Kitchener-Waterloo Hospital where she and the other Class of 1953-54 trained on the wards as student nurses. When not doing practical training in the hospital, they did their academic training at Waterloo College (which became Waterloo Lutheran University in 1960, and Wilfrid Laurier University in 1973).

This three-year training required Donna and her fellow nursing students to work long hours in the hospital and in the classroom.

She graduated in 1956 with her nursing diploma and spent the next year working as a nurse in a hospital chronic care unit, while also working as a supervisor in the hospital nursery during the night shifts.

In 1957, she upgraded her nursing education by getting her diploma in public health nursing from the University of Toronto, the leader in public health nursing in Canada. In Toronto, she met her husband, Douglas Gerald Lackner (1930-2012), son of Frieda Florence Pike and Gerald Vincent Lackner of Scarborough.

Donna worked her entire 38-year career in public health with the Simcoe County District Board of Health. She entered public health a year after federal legislation was passed, enabling federal and provincial government levels to enter into funding agreements for health care.

She and her fellow public health nurses pioneered many of the health programs we take for granted today. When looking back on her career, she noted that in the early days, “nurses were assigned very large catchment areas with one-room schools to cover” where they introduced new and annual health initiative, such as dental health checks and water fluoridation programs.

Working with the same communities allowed her and her colleagues to establish trust and networks within the communities and families. These relationships were crucial when dealing with very sensitive health issues.

Donna recalled discovering tuberculosis cases while doing routine school screenings. As a public health nurse, she was often the first contact that parents and children had when a severe vision or hearing problem was discovered. She and other nurses helped families navigate the new health-care system and made sure “appropriate medical follow-ups were done.”

Dr. Walter Ewing, a local physician, wrote, “Over the years, I joked about how I would hide under my desk on Friday afternoons, around 3:30 p.m., because sure as shooting, Donna would show up about that time with a story about a galloping gangrene, three kids with meningitis, and some sad story about a family evicted into a snowbank because they had head lice. All needing urgent attention. All requiring me to be there until well into the night. Actually, Donna made my life much easier, and I really appreciate all she taught me, and her caring attitude.”

Donna pioneered some of Simcoe County’s public health initiatives, such as prenatal classes, and the Trinity United Church program for single mothers, and became the first public health nurse to regularly visit Barrie's elementary and high schools, such as the Prince of Wales School that shared a field with Barrie Central Collegiate Institute in the downtown core. In an era of increasing drug use and abuse, and new demands for in-school pregnancy counselling, she learned on the job how best to work with her community and make referrals for the help people needed.

Her wide network and active liaison work among the community, physicians and other health agencies, organizations and public health, was a benefit to everyone with whom she worked.

She was described by fellow staff, Rhonda Douglas, as “an avid supporter of the humane society, as well as a child and cat lover at heart.”

Donna’s kindness and humane nature have left their own legacy that echoes in the wake of her death. She will be missed and mourned by those many lives she touched and served.

Relatives from Kincardine and Tiverton attended the graveside service held in Barrie, Nov. 20.

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