Betty MacGregor of Waterloo
Born: Aug. 8, 1943 in Palmerston
Died: Jan. 16, 2010 of complications from pemphigus
Betty MacGregor possessed both a soft, gentleness and a steel hard core, unfailing in her care of others and unwavering in her love for family and friends.Her son Dan said simply, “She was wonderful.”
Growing up in Harriston, the second oldest of seven children, Betty’s early life was not easy. Her father was an alcoholic who died when she was young, leaving her stoic mother to raise the children on her own. Dan called his grandmother strong, resourceful and nurturing — skills emulated by her daughter.
Betty’s family moved to Fergus just as she was beginning Grade 13, after which she entered the University of Toronto’s Wellesley Hospital’s nursing program, graduating in 1965. She worked primarily in doctors’ offices and was eventually hired by Dr. A. Bennett, a Waterloo family practitioner but Betty left nursing in 1968 to help her husband, Peter MacGregor, open Waterloo’s first Harvey’s restaurant. “They worked night and day at that,” said Dan, wondering if the strains of entrepreneurship could have played a part in breaking down their marriage. The couple divorced after more than 20 years of marriage, though they remained on good terms.
Betty, now on her own to raise the couple’s sons, Dan and Andrew, was not one to mope around. She returned to university completing a health degree at the University of Waterloo in 1988, majoring in gerontology. The kind-hearted and ambitious Betty never returned to work full time. Instead she filled her days with volunteerism: scouts, adult daycare, school library, children’s international summer village and the decorative painters guild, but perhaps the most important volunteer role was as a client support worker for Hospice of Waterloo Region. In 2000, she received an Oktoberfest Woman of the Year nomination in 2000 as a community volunteer and a year later, the Ontario Volunteer award for her work. “She would never speak about awards,” Dan said. “I found them in her closet.”
Colleen Lucas, a former volunteer and now staff volunteer co-ordinator at the hospice, recalled her friend was “very gentle with clients.”
The two women had taken their volunteer training together in 1995 and remained friends. Colleen was always impressed with Betty’s manner, the way she would comfort the dying, then insist on being at their funeral to say goodbye in her own quiet way. “Sometimes the family didn’t even know she was there,” Colleen said. Betty might have a client a few days, or a few months before they died yet she was never discouraged. Colleen also talked about Betty’s eagerness to do research for clients if they asked, to give them all the information they needed on their illness.
In 1990, Betty’s own health took a mysterious turn, and after years of misdiagnosis she finally found a specialist who recognized pemphigus vulgaris and gave her a year to live. They didn’t know Betty.
“She took control of the disease,” said Dan, noting his mother researched the illness, attended conferences and support groups then kept detailed notes about her medications, what helped, what didn’t. The idea was to hand over the notes for medical research because the disease is so little understood.
Pemphigus is a rare autoimmune disease of the skin causing those cells that keep the skin intact to separate, resulting in blisters or burn-like lesions. At times, her pain was so intense Betty would be restricted to a wheelchair, but she kept learning about the disease. She was also a founding director of the Canadian Pemphigus and Pemphigoid Foundation, which has since set up a memorial fund in her honour.
Dan said his mother was so committed to helping others, she didn’t want anyone else to suffer what she did in search of diagnoses so every year she would fully disrobe to give a group of medical students a close-up view of pemphigus. It was a difficult experience for her to be so exposed, but teaching young doctors was more important than her personal sense of modesty.
Regardless of how she felt, Betty soldiered on, travelling the world, mostly on cruise ships. In 2001 she took her sons to South Africa, where they visited her childhood pen pal. The two had corresponded since grade school, but never met.
Betty loved life. She loved to cook, to eat good food and entertain. She swam, line danced, skated and golfed. Her life was full and rich.
Her sister, Judy Hales said “she was not one to give in or let you know that she wasn’t feeling well. She did not want anyone to fuss over her so she kept much of her suffering to herself.”
Dan said his mother dreaded becoming a care receiver, hooked up to machine no longer able to care for others. As her illness progressed, Betty’s desire was simple: to die in her own bed. She got her wish.
In a tribute to her sister, Judy said “I want to leave you with a few words that come straight from Betty; ‘There are no guarantees in life. Each day must be its own reward’ and anyone who knew her would understand that this is how she lived her life.”