Who We Are: Nancy Simmers

RN, Death Doula, and Co-Founder & Coordinator of VSED Resources Northwest

Years ago, as a returning Peace Corps Volunteer, I applied to nursing school envisioning my life calling as a midwife. A self-proclaimed feminist, I was sure that women’s roles would drastically change during my lifetime, but that pregnancy and childbearing and reproductive choices would always be the purview of women. I wanted to provide emotional support and knowledge. Instead of graduate school in midwifery, I had my two babies at home with midwives. My 35-year nursing career evolved with my being a labor & delivery nurse. a second-hand for lay midwives, a public health nurse for high-risk mothers and babies, a birth doula, and a lactation specialist. My biggest satisfaction was being a birth doula, working intimately with women as they birthed their babies, discovering how strong they truly were and the sacredness of this life-changing transition.

I first saw the similarities of birth and death while caretaking my dying parents. Both transitions appeared as thresholds involving courage, uncertainty, fear, release, transformation, and love. The passion that ignited and sustains me to this day is that we prepare for, practice and anticipate death as much as we prepare for a healthy pregnancy and birth.

In nursing school, I had almost no education about dying and death. After the death of my parents, I opened to a variety of end-of-life experiences, starting with exploring all aspects of dying. I became a certified facilitator, helping people complete their Advance Care Plan as they considered the end-of-life choices available to them as well as becoming aware of the realities of emergency medical interventions.

My resolve to pursue a death doula practice crystalized when I attended the first International Death Doula Conference, in Maui, and met death doulas from all over the world. A second defining experience was attending the first International VSED Conference in Seattle. I learned why this end-of-life choice was so important for people who did not have access to Medical Aid in Dying or could not meet the legal requirements for it. Afterward the conference, I sought this kind of caregiving situation. I also volunteered for Whatcom Hospice and sang at the bedside of dying people with the Bellingham Threshold Singers. Later, I became a Volunteer Client Advisor for End-Of-Life Washington. In this capacity, I met with people and their family members to discuss the requirements of Washington State’s Death with Dignity Law. If they ultimately decided to use the medication, I facilitated their day of death, mixed the medications and, if asked, sat with them or their family members as they died.

My greatest gift and learning have come from being with individuals at the end of their lives. It is an honor to listen with an open heart as they reviewed their life, consider their legacy, contemplated whether and when to end their lives, and said their goodbyes. It is a sacred honor to be present for families, to listen and discuss the process of dying – which often is a first-time experience – or help them design a ritual ceremony specific for their family or help make after-death plans for honoring the body and celebrating their loved one’s life.

In 2019, three women, community members whose husbands had used VSED as their end-of-life choice, met with me to ponder how to increase awareness of VSED in our community. This was critically important to them because our county’s single hospital and hospice program was unable to assist with VSED because of religious affiliation. Their spouses had struggled to use the VSED option. During 2020, our small group, now called VSED Resources Northwest, grew into a larger group of dedicated individuals who represent a variety of community agencies involved with aging well in Whatcom County and who speak enthusiastically about end-of-life choices. When the COVID pandemic restricted our ability to hold educational presentations about VSED, we created this website, VSEDresources.com, with the goal of advancing awareness of and access to VSED.

We are an eclectic group, but all of us believe that compassionate death is a human right. We are committed to furthering this ideal both in our local community and beyond.

2 thoughts on “Who We Are: Nancy Simmers”

  1. Nancy, I share almost the exact story as yours. A BSN nurse since 1964, started in labor and delivery and learned how abused pregnant and birthing mothers were treated. Became a lay midwife in Texas in early 70’s after the home births of my two daughters and was the only nurse (lay midwife) doing home births in N Texas.
    After 25 years, decided to go into hospice work to get over my fear of death. Both my parents died suddenly when I was in my mid 30’s. I did not have the honor to care for them yet the suicide of several friends and my dad taught me there had to be a better way to die than violently.

    Hospice changed my life. I then moved to Oregon in 1998 and started volunteering with Oregon’s death with dignity organization attending planned deaths all the way from Eugene to the Portland area. I have evolved with the organizations as they have occurred and even volunteered in NW Washington for EOLWA for several years before I retired. My first VSED was probably 15 years ago. I concur with you, to be present at a death is as important as being supported in birth. It is probably more important because of the often frightful ways humans in our culture fear death.

    I have always believed that humans birth and die better in a home environment, they heal from illnesses better at home.
    Keep up your work for one individual at a time. I, too went to the first international conference in Chicago in 2012 put on by Compassion and Choices and attended every lecture about VSED presented by Thaddeus Pope and other researchers. Paid for the conference in Seattle and the weather was so treacherous that day, I chose to listen to the conference instead of driving from Portland to Seattle to attend.
    I believe very ill people need to be reminded of their power as individuals when they were well and need to have good education about all the value a good hospice team and volunteers can make in an easy VSED death.

  2. I am an RN and a Death Doula who has had 13 years of hospice experience. I have a patient/friend that does not have a terminal Diagnosis, but a syndrome called Dysautonomia which is progressing. She definitely wants to have a VSED death, but she cannot get any doctors here in NC to support her since they are afraid of their reputation. I am thinking she can go ahead and do this without an MD, and have a few Rx’s in case she has anxiety, pain, nausea, constipation and etc. She will also have the support of three friends in her home to do mouth care, emotional support and what ever is needed.

    I would appreciate your input.

    Thank you for being such an advocate for VSED. I am presently stepping into being an advocate also. Sincerely, Maggie Purnell

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