A longtime Nelson maternity nurse who died in a crash on Highway 3A last week is being remembered for her magic touch with new mothers and infants.
Gwen Elizabeth Kalyniuk, 56, was the lone occupant of a southbound SUV that crossed the centre line at Thrums and collided head-on with a chip truck.
“Gwen was one of those very quiet, unsung heroes of this community and probably did more for mothers and babies than anyone else,” says Judy Banfield, who knew her well. “She had this real knack for engaging people to work with her and help her set up programs that worked for people.”
Kalyniuk came to Nelson in 1975 to do a summer practicum at Kootenay Lake hospital and enjoyed it so much that she returned the following year with fellow McMaster University nursing student Margot Zimmer.
Upon randomly being assigned to room together at school, they forged an instant bond — initially over the fact Kalyniuk and Zimmer’s mother were from the same small Ontario town — that lasted decades.
“It was an instant connection of soulmates,” Zimmer says.
After completing their degrees, they moved permanently to Nelson and continued to live together while working in the local maternity ward. In the 1980s, they jointly taught pre-natal classes and co-founded Life After Birth, a support group for new mothers that continues to this day.
“It was a wonderful program,” Zimmer says. “We strongly believed every post-partum mother needed support, and didn’t need to be labelled as having depression in order to get it. It removed any stigma.”
It was also virtually unprecedented. Banfield calls it “extraordinarily innovative.”
“It was, I think, the best anyone has done in North America,” she says. “Every mother and baby in this community got phenomenal support from that program.”
Kalyniuk further helped implement pregnancy outreach and early discharge programs, and was one of the first internationally certified lactation consultants.
Banfield — who later received the same certification — says Kalyniuk received the second highest mark in the world on her exam, but didn’t brag about it.
The two got to know each other when Banfield wanted to start a local chapter of the La Leche League, an international breastfeeding support group.
“She put her energy into finding a group of moms to help set this group up,” Banfield says. “She just made things happen.”
That was typical of Kalyniuk’s ability to get things done, she adds — without stepping on toes.
“There was never a turf issue with her. She had this beautiful, soft way of working with people and bringing them together. She was just one of those angels in the community who was very self-effacing yet accomplished a phenomenal amount.”
Zimmer agrees: “Gwen was a rare gem. She was brilliant but completely unassuming. She single-handidly made a huge difference in hundreds of women’s lives.”
Current Kootenay Lake hospital maternity nurse Colleen Driscoll says Kalyniuk had a gift for putting new mothers at ease.
“Nurses too. Sometimes I’d be stumped. We’d have a difficult child that wasn’t going to open its mouth or even think about nursing, and Gwen would have the tricks. She was amazing.”
Within the last year, Kalyniuk became the regional lactation consultant, which saw her maintain an office in Trail and also work in Nelson and Castlegar.
She is survived by a son and daughter in their early 20s who live locally, as well as two brothers and two sisters in Ontario. She also fostered a foster parent and a director for the Kootenay Animal Assistance Program.
The crash that claimed her life occurred shortly before 8:30 a.m. Thursday in the 1600 block of Highway 3A.
The highway was closed entirely for about 2 1/2 hours and later opened to one-way traffic.
The semi-truck driver was shaken up but uninjured.
Sgt. Derek Donovan of West Kootenay Traffic Services says wet roads contributed to the crash.
“There was snow and slush on the road and witnesses say [Kalyniuk] lost control,” he explains. “Definitely the weather and roads were a factor.”
He adds there is some indication the semi driver tried to swerve to avoid the collision, but to no avail.