When Colleen Simms got a job as a nursing assistant at the Waterford Hospital in St. John’s in 1979, she could hardly imagine mental health and addictions would be the path she would choose for the rest of her career.
Motivated by her experiences, she earned a nursing degree and went from mental-health nursing to administrative work to policy analysis over the next three decades.
Last month, Simms retired from her post as assistant deputy minister of population health with the Department of Health and Community Services after decades in the field.
Her colleagues, including Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, were sad to see her go.
“Her work in mental health and addictions… has touched each and every one of us in some way,” Fitzgerald said in a COVID-19 briefing on July 29, fighting back tears.
“You have been steadfast in your leadership, and a tremendous support to those around you. We will miss you at the Department of Health and Community Services and we wish you only the best in your new adventure.”
Simms says stepping back wasn’t easy.
“Her work in mental health and addictions… has touched each and every one of us in some way." — Dr. Janice Fitzgerald on Colleen Simms
She told her boss in January she was going to retire, but then the pandemic hit and she decided to stick around a little longer.
In that time, she saw a couple of pet projects come to fruition, including a contract to build a new mental health facility to replace the Waterford Hospital, and the expansion of community treatment teams to provide care for mental health clients at or near their homes.
Replacing the Waterford Hospital was a huge step, she says.
“I’ve been involved in at least four different planning initiatives over the last 15 years.”
When she got her bachelor of nursing degree in 1982, her final paper was actually about discussions to replace the hospital, which was originally built in the mid 1800s.
“I’m sure before I was born, there were other initiatives to replace it. So it’s taken this long, which is really unfortunate. It should have been done a long time ago,” she says.
“It was just lovely to have been a part of this all along and to be able to see some things finishing up. There’s still an awful lot of work to do but I was really, really pleased.”
A private members bill in the House of Assembly tabled by NDP MHA Gerry Rogers in 2015 was what got the ball rolling on fixing problems with mental health supports. Simms credits her former boss, Health Minister John Haggie, as well as outgoing premier Dwight Ball for following through on recommendations proposed in Towards Recover, a report issued by an all-party committee two years later.
“The real work is happening in the community, and the new mental health facility is part of the Towards Recovery action plan,” she says.
1. What is your full name?
Colleen Mary (Lundrigan) Simms.
2. Where and when were you born?
St. Clare’s Hospital in St. John’s on July 5
3. Where do you live today?
In the beautiful town of Torbay.
4. What’s your favourite place in the world?
My favourite place in the world is sitting around the table talking with my family.
5. Who do you follow on social media?
Mostly mental health community types, folks I work with in mental health. I also follow political and social activists, journalists, media outlets.
6. What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I played piano and cello growing up. I love music. Two of my three kids are musicians and did music degrees and so forth.
7. What’s been your favourite year and why?
I’ve had many years that are favourites. Getting married, the births of my children, I don’t know how you could settle on (just) one of those. The favourite time of year would be fall. I think the beginning of the year is September. It’s the start of the school year, I love the season change. I’m a big Christmas person — I like the lead-up to it. But I’ve had many favourite years.
8. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
Doing my master’s degree while working full-time and raising three kids. I love being a student, I love my work, I love my children, but not all three at the same time. I’m not a good multitasker.
9. Can you describe one experience that changed your life?
It’s happened my first day (as a nursing assistant) at the Waterford. I was 19 years old. I went into one of the patient lounges on one of the units and sat down next to one of the staff and started talking to him. He was my age, he was 19, and he just finished a trade. After about 10 minutes chatting with me, he told me he could control the lights with his mind. It slowly dawned on me that this was a young person who was a patient… who was very ill. I was mesmerized talking to him, and really overwhelmed that he needed help. but I wasn’t sure how to help him. But I know that’s what I wanted to do.
10. What’s your greatest indulgence?
A really good book and chocolate.
11. What is your favourite movie or book?
One of my all-time favourite books is “A Prayer for Owen Meaney,” by John Irving. I like movies that are based on real events, because I’m stuck on “The Post” and “The King’s Speech.”
12. How do you like to relax?
Doing anything with my family. Mostly watching shows with my husband on TV, or watching favourite romantic comedies with my daughters.
13. What are you reading or watching right now?
I’m reading Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime.” I’m also watching “West Wing” with my husband for the umpteenth time.
14. What is your greatest fear?
I’m a mother and a grandmother now. So something happening to my children is my greatest fear. Other than that, I worry a lot about climate change, the pandemic, about our neighbours to the south and what they’re doing with the pandemic. Other than that, I fear wasps getting in the car when I’m driving.
15. If you were singing karaoke what would be your song?
The Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
16. What is your most treasured possession?
Home videos. We have a great collection.
17. What physical or personality trait are you most grateful to a parent for?
I think I have a good ability to empathize, which I think really served me well in my career. The other is a sense of humour. I can laugh at almost anything.
18. What three people would join you for your dream dinner party?
My true dream dinner party would be with my grandparents, who aren’t here, of course. If it was a true dream dinner party, that’s who would be there.
19. What is your best quality, and what is your worst quality?
I think my best quality is that I am a good listener, and no doubt my worst quality is I’m a procrastinator.
20. If you didn’t take this career path, what would have chosen?
I cannot come up with another career. I think I had the best career possible for me. I loved every minute of it. But I like to be in an environment where I’m always learning … so I’d love to be a reporter.
Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering health care for The Telegram.