Laura MacDonald had to take a break from her nursing internship at Queen’s University.
But she had a pretty good reason.
The 22-year-old Katimavik woman had a date at Rideau Hall on Friday, Feb. 8, where she was awarded a Governor General Medal of Bravery.
“That was a huge shock,” said MacDonald. “I feel very special, very honoured.”
Gov-Gen. David Johnston presented four Stars of Courage and 46 Medals of Bravery last week.
The awards were created in 1972 to recognize people who risk their lives to protect or try to save others. The Medal of Bravery recognizes acts of bravery during hazardous circumstances.
MacDonald never expected to receive an award for her actions on March 20, 2010, the night she saved a fellow Queen’s student from drowning.
That night, MacDonald and a group of five of her fellow students were out for a walk along the Lake Ontario waterfront across from her residence, when they heard cries coming from the water.
MacDonald and her friends ran to the pier where they saw a purple leather jacket lying on the dock, the type commonly used by Queen’s engineering students.
Nearly three metres below the pier, a young woman was thrashing in the water.
The students threw a line to the woman and pulled her close to the pier and then tried to pull her out, but couldn’t reach her.
“Instinct kind of kicked in,” said MacDonald. “I just grabbed my friend’s hand and he swung me into the water.
“I just had to help her and get her out of the water – it was really cold,” she said. “It was really just an instinctive kind of thing. Someone was in danger.”
There were ladders with metal rungs leading up the concrete pier, but they were difficult to see in the dark.
MacDonald, who earned a bronze cross in swimming and took lessons at the Kanata Leisure Centre, knew how dangerous it was to try and save someone who was drowning and flailing their arms and body in a panic.
But the water was icy cold and the woman needed help.
MacDonald remembered a move from her days playing forward for the Earl of March Lions girls rugby team.
She dove underneath the drowning woman and grabbed her by the thighs and then braced her feet on a nearby concrete piling.
“It’s a technique we use in rugby to get people off the ground to throw in,” said MacDonald. “I went underwater to get the momentum.
“If I hadn’t of played rugby for so long I don’t think I’d be able to get her out of the water.”
When the drowning woman’s body was raised high enough out of the water, MacDonald’s friends grabbed her and pulled her up to the pier.
“At the time I wasn’t the least bit concerned for myself,” she said. “I’m a pretty strong swimmer. Afterwards it kicked in, ‘I’m kind of in some really cold water.”
MacDonald found a ladder and slowly climbed out of the water.
“It’s really hard to climb out because it’s little metal bars,” she said.
When she reached the top, MacDonald, who was cold, wet and very tired, returned to her residence, while her friends waited for an ambulance to arrive.
“We were (later) told she was fine,” she said.
Over the next week, MacDonald, who had been nursing a cold, developed bronchitis.
“I actually wasn’t going to tell my parents about what happened that night because I was afraid they’d be angry because I put myself in danger,” she said.
In 2011, MacDonald received a commendation of merit from the Kingston police.
MacDonald, who attended both Katimavik Elementary School and Earl of March while growing up, was later nominated for the Governor General’s Medal of Bravery by her father, Reginald.
“I’m pretty proud,” he said the day before the awards ceremony. “Very proud.”
Laura MacDonald had been keeping the news of her award under wraps, said Reginald.
“She hasn’t even told hardly any of her friends, just the ones who were there; she’s kept it pretty low key.”
But her parents’ enthusiasm was infectious, his daughter said.
“Everyone’s got me pumped about it,” she said. “My parents are pretty excited.”