A life of service, selflessness, teaching and mentorship.
These qualities best describe Dr. Heather Onyett (1945-2020) for everyone who knew her.
Raised in northern Ontario, Dr. Onyett’s personal experience in remote communities profoundly shaped her future path.
Following her graduation from Memorial University’s medical school in 1974 as its first pediatrician, she spent five years as chief of pediatrics with the International Grenfell Association.
Dr. Onyett spoke often of her fulfilment working as the solo pediatrician providing care for the Indigenous and settler children living in the remote communities of northern Newfoundland and Labrador, and the resourceful and caring people she came to know and love.
Her commitment to global health issues was a prominent factor in her life. For more than 50 years, she practised, mentored and volunteered in numerous remote regions of the world. She was an authority in the disciplines of population health and infectious diseases.
Her dedication to the people she served went above and beyond the ordinary. Dr. Onyett used all of her vacation leave to volunteer on humanitarian missions or to run teaching clinics in underserved communities.
In later years, a life-threatening illness slowed her down but did not stop her from sharing her expertise at international conferences and mentoring colleagues.
In 2016 she received the prestigious Life Membership Award of the Canadian Pediatric Society for her dedication to advancing the health of Canadian children.
‘Do good in the world’
Dr. Onyett drew upon her life experience as she planned her bequest to Memorial University.
Her goal was to support excellent students in order for them to maximize their potential and go out and “do good in the world.”
She also greatly valued her colleagues from other health disciplines. This inspired Dr. Onyett to establish four endowed scholarships for students in the Faculty of Nursing, the School of Social Work and the School of Pharmacy.
“This award … empowered me to continue to serve Northern communities.”
She created an entrance scholarship at Grenfell Campus with priority for students from northern Newfoundland and coastal Labrador. As a nod to her first degree, in modern history, she established a History scholarship.
Her estate gift also endowed the Dr. Heather Onyett Convocation Award for the Master of Public Health, which she established during her lifetime.
Medical student David Lane was the first recipient of her generosity and felt her kindness first-hand, having received Dr. Onyett’s convocation award in 2017.
She also sent him a personal message expressing her delight that the first recipient was from Labrador. He says the award has impacted him in many ways, both financially and personally.
“The award and Dr. Onyett’s work is so inspiring,” said Mr. Lane.
“I am passionate about public health and contributing to the well-being of populations who live in rural and remote Canada. This award not only motivated me to apply to medical school, but it also empowered me to continue to serve Northern communities with the same hard work and dedication that I gave throughout the master’s program in public health.”
Dr. Onyett passed away on Jan. 6, 2020. She created a remarkable legacy at Memorial University as her six scholarships and convocation award will help 17 students annually and in perpetuity.
Her generous support, strong values and inspiring life will live on in Memorial’s students. Their pride — like that of David Lane — is memorialized in the many recipients of her support.