Women's health pioneer sees progress
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- She grew up with 10 siblings in a devout and strict Catholic home. She went to Catholic schools. Religion was an integral fact of her life.
Today, she credits that Catholic foundation for the analytical thinking that allowed her to question doctrine and spearhead such women's health services as birth control and abortion.
Nancy Tolliver, 70, a pioneer activist for women's reproductive health in West Virginia, retired Dec. 31 from the work that has driven her for nearly half a century.
As an obstetrical nurse, she saw heart-wrenching repercussions of teenage pregnancy that changed the direction of her career.
A fierce advocate of sex education, childbirth education and breastfeeding, she helped organize the Le Leche League here and was a founder and first director of the Women's Health Center.
She retired as director of the West Virginia Perinatal Partnership, a policy-making organization headed now by her daughter, Amy.
"I was born in Mason City, Iowa, one of 11 children in a very Catholic family. My father was in the meat business. We traveled a lot. We would get all the kids in a car and go off to the West, seven children and my parents making that trip across country in a Studebaker.
"When I was about 10, we moved to Turkey for two years. My father was on contract to the U.S. government to help Turkey set up slaughterhouses and packing plants and to develop health policy for meat production. This travel gave me a first-hand view of unbelievable poverty and oppression of women.
"All of my education was Catholic. In St. Joe, Mo., where we lived when I was a teenager, I attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a French order of nuns. It was a fabulous education. What I am most thankful for in my life are the people who influenced me to do what I'm doing.
"I had a scholarship to college. That summer, I was working in a Catholic hospital. My aunt, a nurse, was visiting when one of the kids in the family hurt their foot. I was soaking it in a pan of salt water. She said, 'Nancy, you ought to go into nursing.'
"Then, I was working in the hospital one day and the mother superior asked me to meet with her. She said, 'Nancy, I think you need to go into nursing. I've arranged for you to go to Oklahoma City. I've talked to your parents, and if you agree, your dad will take you in two weeks.'
"Off to Oklahoma I went. That's where I met my husband, Frank, who grew up in Mullens. My husband got the job in West Virginia working for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation as a psychologist.
"I went to Ohio Valley General Hospital for my psychiatric nursing training. I started working at CAMC as an obstetrical nurse and in the family planning clinic.
"Birth control had just been FDA-approved, so everyone was talking about the pill. In the clinic, I was exposed to the good part of obstetric nursing and the tragedies. And the tragedies seemed to be occurring frequently.
"Adolescent girls would be crying, and here they would have this little baby to take home, and often the parents took that baby and raised it.
"Those experiences touched me. I started asking myself, 'How do I personally control my own reproductive system if I want to have a career and still be a mother?' I was starting to have a little divide between what my church was teaching me and what I was feeling.
"As I got more involved in reproductive issues, I became more passionate about it. In planning sessions, I suddenly realized I was surrounded by a huge number of women who were Catholic. They were recognizing the importance of a woman being able to make decisions about having a baby.
"My passions are totally women's health. The first thing I got interested in was childbirth education and breastfeeding. As I had my own children, there was very little help on what childbirth was and how to manage it.
"I taught childbirth education to couples in the Charleston area for about seven years, four nights a week in a number of places. Thomas Hospital gave me their whole physical therapy room. I trained other nurses to teach childbirth education. We taught thousands of women and their husbands.
"I told Dr. Stabins I wanted to nurse my second baby. He handed me the Le Leche League book, 'The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.' He said it would tell me everything. That was another person who had a tremendous influence on the direction I went in.
"So we formed the Le Leche League. It grew and grew. We had seven or eight leaders with meetings all around. Now we have lactation consultants, which is fabulous.
"In 1974, I got a call from Connie Mooney. Roe v. Wade had just happened, and she said we really needed to do something about having abortion services in West Virginia. She wondered if I would consider it.
"Birth control was one thing. Abortion was something else. I spent about three months studying the issues. The thing that won me over was that women needed a safe place to have an abortion. They were getting abortions that were costing huge amounts of money and they were unsafe.
"Women I knew had suffered complications from illegal abortions. A good friend took her 16-year-old to New York. They could afford that. What about women who could not afford it?
"I talked with a priest and a couple of ministers. The priest said it is murder. But then, I wasn't going to perform abortions myself. A lot of the ministers here had formed an organization to provide counsel and referral for abortion services around the state. I met with several of them. That helped open my eyes.
"When I was in college in Kansas City, the Jesuits would come to our girls' school and teach philosophy and ethics and religion and logic. My eyes were opened initially then to really think and question. So I'm very thankful for my Catholic education for leading me to where I am now.
"The first Women's Health Center was across from CAMC in Kanawha City. I was the first director. We set it up from scratch. We had birth control, a birth center, adoption service and health education and reproductive health services. One thing people really loved was pre-adolescent sex education. So we were doing a lot of things besides abortion.
"We had some bad times. It was hard to get physicians. They were putting themselves on the line. There were two who said they firmly believed that women had a right to abortion, and they were both extremely well respected.
"There were a lot of protests. One year, they brought people in from out of state to picket. They were there 18 months. Employees would come to work, and there would be people screaming horrible things at them. Their intent was to make us fearful, and we were afraid.
"Every day, volunteers would stand at the front door and go out and escort the women into the clinic to protect them from the picketers who were so violent.
"After 11 years there, I was ready to move on. I wanted to have an influence on state policy. You can have an influence. I learned from my parents to take an active role if you firmly believe in something and see what kind of effect you can have.
"That's when Dr. David Heydinger hired me to come to the state Health Department where I was over community health services. I was there 11 years. Apparently, every 11 years I make a change.
"The Perinatal Partnership started because of the Benedum Foundation. They came to me and said, 'What is happening to infant mortality and women's health in West Virginia? We are sliding back.' We had good rates all through the '80s and '90s, then other states were making progress and we weren't.
"They said we needed to do something. Separate entities -- WVU, Marshall, the state, professional associations -- weren't making any progress on their own.
"We believed if you put them all together in a partnership and identified major problems and the policy changes that would impact them, we could make some progress. And that's exactly how we functioned. We started in 2006.
"We've made tremendous progress, but drug use in pregnancy is still a major issue. We're trying to put the maternity people together with the psychiatric people to treat drug abuse.
"If you look at West Virginia maternal data, the biggest problem is teen pregnancy. Teenagers have the worst outcomes for their babies of any age group except women over 40, and the mothers are having a lot of complications.
"A study is being completed now on what each county can do about teaching reproductive health. If a teenager is going to become pregnant, she needs enough information to have a healthy baby.
"I'm going to Florida and staying about two months. I never took that much time off. I've got travel plans for the next couple of years.
"About six years ago, I was going to retire. I was easing up on work. Then my husband got sick. After he passed away, I was so thrilled I still had this work.
"The biggest answer to making a difference on everything I've been involved in is collaboration. If I didn't have the support of a lot of other people, none of it would have happened."Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.