VON remembers Mary Buzzell

Headshot of Mary Buzzell

In May, VON team members past and present joined the community gathered at McMaster University to remember the life of Mary Buzzell.

Mary’s combined lifelong passions for nursing, education and advocacy for the vulnerable came together perfectly in her work for VON, where she was a staff member, a devoted volunteer, an advocate and a donor.

In 1981, Mary began a joint appointment as a professor in the School of Nursing with McMaster University and a nurse consultant with VON. She held various roles at VON, including Director of Nursing Services for the Elderly and Director of Community Relations for the Hamilton branch.

She also served on various national and local VON committees, in areas such as long-term care, quality assurance, client-centred care, human rights policy development and public relations.

By all accounts, Mary was a visionary. She started the first nurse practitioner program in Ontario in the seventies. She also toured the country on behalf of VON in the early eighties to spread the word that Canadians should prepare for an aging boom. She and colleague Mary Gibbon shared that community, housing and healthcare supports would be needed, and correctly predicted that we would one day see seniors among the unhoused.

Krista Law, VON Manager of Home and Community Care in Hamilton, recalls that Mary also had a strong interest in supporting family caregivers. She was instrumental in creating a caregiver support and education program, a revised version of which is still used today to help family caregivers with challenges and emotions.

In addition to being an innovator, Krista says Mary was great to be around. “She would come into the office and everyone would gravitate to her,” she says. “She was a wonderful person.” Krista recalls that Mary would get the team to do a funny dance to increase energy.

Mary was also a founding board member of the Hamilton Council on Aging (HCoA). Over her lifetime, she was the winner of numerous awards, including the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2012) and the Lady Ishbel Aberdeen Award (1991), VON Canada’s highest honour.

Donna Roe was Director of VON’s Hamilton branch and later National Director, VON Canada, retiring from the position in 1998. She recalls that Mary shared her extensive knowledge and clinical expertise with staff, and was uniquely gifted at facilitating clinical problem solving.

“She had infinite patience and deep, sincere respect for all the nurses, the patients and their families,” Donna says. “She was non-judgmental, took each person where they were at and coached and supported them.”

Mary was hired at a time when people were increasingly able to age at home. “This was enabling an improved quality of life for so many Canadians and reducing costs to the healthcare system,” explains Donna. “But there were in some situations many arising adjustments for these patients, their families and caregivers and our nurses and other home care staff. This is where Mary's knowledge and skills came in.” 

Janis North worked at VON Hamilton from 1976 to 2007, as a visiting nurse, and later, Executive Director. She worked with Mary for most of that time and says, “I was one of many people who she steadfastly mentored through my years at VON and I was honoured to be in Mary's wide circle of friends until she died.”

She adds, “Watching her in action as she interacted with patients, family caregivers and colleagues or advocated for individuals, ideas, programs or organizations all made me a better nurse, administrator and colleague.”

Mary emphasized the importance of “personhood” early on, when the medical model was the predominant approach to care. “Nursing records listed diagnoses and nursing problems but there was little documentation of a person's strengths, values and wishes,” says Janis. “Mary saw this as a great gap and a resource that was not being used to enhance the person's quality of care and life.”

Mary advised, “We may think we know what is best for a person's health, but we are arrogant if we assume that we know what is best for a person's life.”

“I like to think that there are precious nuggets of Mary's knowledge and practice that will continue to illuminate and influence the care of older people in Canada and beyond,” Janis says.

Mary also supported VON’s mission as a loyal donor for over 30 years and as a legacy donor, leaving the organization a gift in her estate.

“Of the many nurses I've worked with over my career, I can say that Mary practiced and lived true unconditional love, with everyone she was involved with…a very rare quality,” says Donna.

Mary Buzzell passed away at age 90 on October 5, 2023.