After decades of salving the wounds of patients with kidney failure, David Simmons is moved to tears at the thought of caring for his diabetic mother, who raised him and his three siblings on love and not much else in Caroline County.
“She was very caring, very loving, and we had very little but she made certain that if there was something that we wanted, she would find a way to get it for us,” Simmons said of the late Ora Lee Simmons Courtney.
He can remember walking miles with holes in his shoes, but the sense of giving, compassion and community that his extended family instilled in him are what really stuck, he said.
“They cared enough to make certain that we could grow and move on," Simmons said, "and it is from that that I’ve been able to strive.”
A senior clinician in the University of Virginia Health System’s nephrology outpatient unit, Simmons was the first in his family to attend college. Now he is the one to whom people turn for help and advice, said sister-in-law Katherine Crawford.
“He has a laugh about him that immediately makes you feel comfortable and confident that he would never stray you the wrong way,” she said. “He’s an invaluable resource for the community and a natural leader.”
Uplifting and committed to the faith and well-being of those lucky enough to know him is how the Rev. Alvin Edwards, pastor of Mount Zion First African Church in Charlottesville, described Simmons, a friend of 25 years.
“The thing about David is that if I ask for his help I never need to give it a second thought — he will just take care of it,” Edwards said.
A quick list of things Simmons has taken care of: Grant-funded back-to-school immunizations for struggling families; free prostate and diabetes screenings; and consultations with parishioners headed for doctor’s visits regarding serious medical problems.
“He gives his whole heart and soul in the area of medicine,” said Edwards, a former Charlottesville mayor and school board member. “He always, always wants to do his best.”
Good nurses, Simmons said, have strong minds, big hearts and — most importantly — the tenacity to challenge themselves, the doctors they work alongside and the patients they serve.
He learned early to work hard and work smart, the only way he could succeed as a black man in nursing at a time when white women prevailed in the field, he said.
“It’s like Langston Hughes said in ‘Mother to Son’ — ‘Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,’” he said.
Simmons has flourished at UVa, spending days off in the operating room observing surgeries so he can better understand how and why his patients feel pain. He jumped at the chance to further his own education at the university and pressed colleagues to do the same. Simmons credited a teacher who pushed him to succeed.
The two are kindred spirits, said Suzanne Burns, professor emeritus at UVa’s School of Nursing.
“Sometimes you have to challenge someone a little to get them to see what you see in them,” she said. “David is a stellar, joyful, compassionate, humble man and it’s a privilege to be called his mentor.”
Burns said that an investment in Simmons is an investment in the community, because he takes what he has learned and pays it forward. Simmons said he feels responsible for helping to educate others about the steps they can take to prevent long-term conditions or at least catch them early on.
“We, especially African-Americans, seem to think we are immortal,” he said. “No one ever thinks they will develop diabetes, heart disease or get cancer.”
Knowing he has helped to reach even one person is sufficient reward for the countless hours spent working with the community, Simmons said.
“The larger hope is that they will at some point pay it forward to someone else,” he said.
David E. Simmons Jr.
Hometown: Caroline County
Occupation: Nurse at the nephrology outpatient clinic at the University of Virginia Health System
Personal: Married to Deanna Jackson Jordan; father of three grown children
Pastimes: Community service, supporting the mission of Mount Zion First African Baptist Church, where he is a trustee