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Toni Lawrie, a trailblazer for women veterans' health care, dies at 69

ST. PETERSBURG — Toni Lawrie always wanted to help people. So she became a registered nurse, then joined the Peace Corps, where she served in Malaysia from 1963 to 1966.

Though the experience taught her about life in an Asian village, nothing could have prepared her for her next journey — as a member of the Air Force Nurse Corps in Vietnam.

Her first night in Cam Ranh Bay, her unit was attacked. She spent the next four years in the trenches, making life-and-death decisions with critically wounded soldiers and holding their hands when they died.

After the war, she started a women's clinic in her hometown of Indianapolis, then moved to St. Petersburg. Her effort led to another clinic — this time for women veterans. The Well Women's Clinic, which opened in 1988 at Bay Pines VA Medical Center, became a model for Veterans Affairs Department clinics nationwide.

Ms. Lawrie, regarded as a national influence in expanding health services for women veterans, died Dec. 15 due to complications of breast cancer. She was 69.

"I don't think there's any question and everyone would agree that Toni was really a pioneer in the area of women's health," said Joan Furey, a former director of the Center for Women Veterans in Washington, D.C., who once worked alongside Ms. Lawrie as a nurse at Bay Pines. "Back in the early 1980s when we were at Bay Pines, we really didn't have any kind of gender-specific health services for women veterans."

At least indirectly and sometimes directly, women have served in combat or combat-related roles since the Revolutionary War. They have been killed and wounded and have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

Estimates on the percentages of women now serving in the military vary between 15 and 20 percent. Since 2001, more than 220,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the VA offers services for their health needs in centers across the country.

"Effectively many women in uniform are in combat missions every day, be they helicopter pilots, be they medics, be they logistical support personnel," Geoff Morrell, the chief spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said in a recent statement.

Yet until recent decades, the VA has not typically offered services such as maternity care or breast and pelvic exams.

"Part of it is there weren't that many women, and they didn't need to dedicate any resources," said Furey, who also has served as education director of the VA's National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

When women veterans shown up for gender-specific health care, Furey said, "They didn't encounter an environment that made them want to continue, or want to come back."

Lawrie helped establish what was then called the Well Women's Clinic in 1988 through persistence and a kind of genial arm twisting. At the time, only one other VA hospital in the country had a full-time gynecologist on staff.

"She knew the housekeeper's name and the names of the VA police," said Susan Young, the current women's programs manager at Bay Pines. "She knew the first name of the medical center director and she called him by his first name. She was a good mover and shaker."

Mary Antoinette Lawrie grew up in Indianapolis, the second of seven children. She attended what is now Marian University Indianapolis and the school of nursing at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital. She earned a master's degree in political science and health at Indiana University.

"She was always captain of the kickball team, captain of the basketball team and president of her class," said sister Kate Lawrie, 64.

She served in the Air Force from 1966 to 1970, leaving with the rank of captain.

In the 1970s, she started a women's health clinic in the moldering basement of an Indianapolis apartment complex with only donated time, doctors' free samples and grant money. She was married briefly during that decade.

On Jan. 9, 1981, her 40th birthday, she stuffed her possessions into a Honda Civic and left Indianapolis for St. Petersburg, seeking warmer weather. She found the job at Bay Pines, where she served as director of women veterans for the southeastern United States.

Doctors removed her larynx in 2004 after they discovered throat cancer. Ms. Lawrie allowed her nieces and nephews to play with her mechanical larynx and smiled as they giggled.

That cancer was in remission, but she was diagnosed with breast cancer this year. After her retirement in 2005, the VA renamed the clinic the Mary Antoinette Lawrie Clinic for Women.

Said Young: "Because of her ability to kind of motivate people and pull them together to a common goal, she really was the moving, driving force in women veterans' programs, not just here at Bay Pines but in the nation."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.Biography

Mary Antoinette "Toni" Lawrie

Born: Jan. 9, 1941.

Died: Dec. 15, 2010.

Survivors: Brothers Douglas and his wife Karen, John and his wife Randi, Chris and his wife Libby, and Jeff and his wife Becky; sister Kate Lawrie; and numerous nieces and nephews.

Toni Lawrie, a trailblazer for women veterans' health care, dies at 69 12/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 21, 2010 11:00pm]

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