Iris P. Donohue, 67, nurse at St. Agnes HealthCare

March 30, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Iris P. Donohue, a retired registered nurse who worked for more than 35 years at St. Agnes HealthCare, died of cancer Friday at her home in the Charles Towers apartments. She was 67.

Born Iris Patricia Vernarelli and raised in East Baltimore, she was one of 14 children of Italian immigrant parents. She was a 1954 graduate of Catholic High School and later of the old school of nursing at St. Joseph Hospital, then on Caroline Street.

Mrs. Donohue spent her entire career as an emergency and operating room nurse at the former St. Agnes Hospital, now St. Agnes Healthcare - taking a few years off to devote time to raising her family. Though she was treated for lung cancer, Mrs. Donohue continued working until retiring in 2002.

She was married in 1958 to Edward Donohue, a Baltimore firefighter who died last year. Before moving to a 28th-floor Charles Towers apartment in 1986, the couple lived for many years in the Lakeland section of Southwest Baltimore.

When a major fire erupted in 1999 on the 15th floor, and some residents fled to the roof to escape the smoke, Mrs. Donohue navigated the stairways to safely make her way to the street.

"Her husband, by then retired from the Baltimore Fire Department, was out of town when the spectacular blaze broke out on the upper floors," said a nephew, Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state prison system. "Iris, stuck in her 28th-floor apartment near the top of the building, could hear the firefighters yelling, `There's a firefighter's wife on the 28th floor.'"

Mrs. Donohue never drove a car, commuting aboard buses or walking to get around.

"She met a number of homeless and down-on-their-luck people, and invariably chose to help them," her nephew said.

"Only after her death did her children find out she had anonymously paid for a teen-ager to attend four years at Cardinal Gibbons [High School], buying his books and even a school ring. Her son, Timothy, was a graduate of the school."

With a daughter, she traveled to the Abruzzi region of Italy to trace her family's roots in the mountaintop town of Celano. She also insisted on visiting the site of the World Trade Center in New York City after the terrorist attacks of 2001, family members said.

She enjoyed sailing on the Chesapeake Bay and kept a sailboat for years at the Anchorage Marina in Canton.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. tomorrow at St. Leo Roman Catholic Church, Stiles and Exeter streets in Little Italy.

Mrs. Donohue is also survived by her son, Timothy P. Donohue of Raleigh, N.C.; two daughters, Bridget K. Donohue of Alexandria, Va., and Patty M. Donohue of Baltimore; a brother, John Vernarelli of Perry Hall; three sisters, Ella Reinsfelder, Edith Ireland and Mary Toutloff, all of Baltimore; and four grandchildren.

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