Nancy Hewitt Spaeth, 1947-2022
A memorial service was held for Nancy Hewitt Spaeth on Saturday, April 9, 2022. A recording of the service is available here.
With her passing in January at age 74, the kidney world lost a unique and tenacious figure and Northwest Kidney Centers lost a champion and special friend.
Nancy developed kidney problems as a child and grew up along with the treatment of kidney disease and along with Northwest Kidney Centers.
Nancy was the oldest living kidney patient in the world and living history herself. She started dialysis at 18 and then lived 56 years on dialysis or with a transplant.
Nancy was involved with Northwest Kidney Centers in one way or another since the very early days of dialysis. She funded the patient/family living room on the 4th floor of our 15th and Cherry clinic in Seattle, which is named in her honor. Up until the pandemic she enjoyed leading tours of our dialysis museum and served on our Foundation Board and Board Quality Committee for many years.
Her experience with kidney disease is truly an incredible one. She was featured in this video from the 2016 Breakfast of Hope and interviewed by Lisa Hall, Nancy Spaeth’s story: A little history and a lot of hope.
We are fortunate have Nancy’s story in her own words.
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It takes a very big personality to deal with kidney failure and being on dialysis. It takes an even bigger personality to step across the line of dealing with your own health issues to help and inspire others to deal with theirs. Nancy was a petite person physically, with the biggest personality to help others that I have ever known.
When she first started dialysis as a young woman, Nancy was told she would never be able to have a family, never be able to work, and certainly never have the stamina to reach out to others through multiple organizations like the Northwest Renal Network, Home Dialysis Central, the National Kidney Foundation, Northwest Kidney Centers patients association and others.
Nancy proved them all wrong. She had children and grandchildren. She graduated from nursing school and worked as a rehab nurse for years. She testified on behalf of kidney patients to state and federal legislature.
And through it all, she reminded us that health care professionals need to look behind the patient, to see the person who is there, and to never, ever, set limits for someone else.
We hear the words, “a tireless advocate,” and Nancy was truly one. Northwest Kidney Centers and the dialysis world will miss her advocacy and her selfless devotion to unlimited possibility for people with kidney disease.
— Katy Wilkens was a student dietitian at Northwest Kidney Centers in 1975 when she first met Nancy. Katy retired last year after 46 years at Northwest Kidney Centers.
Nancy was small in physical stature; but, large in her commitment and dedication to support of Northwest Kidney Centers. No task was insurmountable because she achieved resolution to life’s challenges. She was an active participant in Board and Committee discussions. She always left you with the patient’s perspective. Rest in Peace, Nancy.
— Clint Randolph, former Northwest Kidney Centers Board member and colleague of Nancy’s
Nancy Spaeth was truly a larger than life individual and a force to be reckoned with. She exuded knowledge and confidence when discussing her journey with kidney disease which started when she was stung by a swarm of bees at a young age. She was selected by the “Admissions Committee” to receive lifesaving dialysis at age 18 when her kidneys failed in the mid-1960’s. She went on to live a full life, attending college while on dialysis, getting married, having two children, going through four kidney transplant surgeries, using all forms of dialysis in center and at home, and staying employed in many roles including nursing in multiple forms. Throughout her life she provided service to the kidney community through volunteer roles often representing the patient perspective; she loved to give speeches (including in India, a peak experience for Nancy) and sharing her story whenever she could.
I met Nancy in 1998 when I joined Northwest Kidney Centers as CEO. Nancy knew that the best way to orient me to the field was to invite me to observe her lifestyle. So, I visited her at Virginia Mason Medical Center where she was a rehabilitation nurse, and she showed me how peritoneal dialysis worked for her in her work setting. She introduced me to Dr. Belding Scribner, the founder of chronic hemodialysis, taking me to his Seattle houseboat and joining in lively conversation with him about the early years of dialysis. She loved to tell the story about how she would dress in her little black dress and meet visiting dignitaries and grant-makers with Dr. Scribner, showing them her Scribner shunt, and impressing them enough about the rehabilitation impact of dialysis to ensure support kept flowing. She felt so useful then, and her joy in contributing to the wider community’s knowledge about life with kidney disease continued throughout her long life.
Nancy and I visited lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. about 15 years ago with a delegation from Northwest Kidney Centers, and from then on whenever I’d speak with a Washington state congressperson they’d always ask about the well-being of Nancy Spaeth. She was very active in Democratic circles here in Washington, always self-identified as a kidney patient in introductions, and told her life story with a dramatic message that stuck with her audience who were amazed by her vibrancy and accomplishments.
Nancy was a great docent for the Northwest Kidney Centers Dialysis Museum as she could describe in detail how she she built her dialyzer and conducted home dialysis at a young age. Her “lived history” of the field is unmatched by any other, and her passing is a huge loss.
I conclude by commenting that Nancy was a great advocate. She was passionate about the benefits of a low salt diet for all of us, especially those with kidney disease, and through tireless messaging helped Northwest Kidney Centers “walk the talk” and serve lower salt meals at events, board committee meetings and dinners etc.
The Nancy Spaeth Living Room welcomes home dialysis patients in Seattle. How fitting is this name, as Nancy truly demonstrated how to live well and live long. She will be deeply missed.
— Joyce F. Jackson, Emeritus President and CEO, Northwest Kidney Centers
— Blog post by
Nancy, of course, was one of the first people I met at NKC when I became the first Executive Director of the newly formed NKC Foundation under the leadership of Joyce F. Jackson. Nancy was a force for good, a constant advocate and friend to kidney patients. We went onto educate our elected officials in both Washingtons. Raising more than a few dollars along the way. Nancy singing the praises of NKC, her personal story, love for her family and nursing career.
Nancy will be missed by all of us BUT Oh what a life well lived. NKC’s mission personified!
— Peter Raffa, former Executive Director of Northwest Kidney Foundation
The qualities that come to mind when I think about Nancy Spaeth are courage, tenacity and inspiration.
- Courage for relentlessly tackling the outcomes of a childhood accident that lead to her eventual kidney failure throughout her long life.
- Tenacity for sticking to her dialysis and transplant regimens, and for being an unrelenting advocate for people living with kidney disease. Nancy strictly maintained a healthy lifestyle and kidney healthy diet – which she was always happy to tell you about.
- Inspiration because her longevity and experience with in-center and home dialysis and four kidney transplants gave hope to kidney patients all over the world.
I first met Nancy after my arrival at Northwest Kidney Centers to lead its fundraising and communications operations. Nancy joined Northwest Kidney Centers Foundation board in 2007, serving for nine years. Nancy’s story was an inspiration for fellow board members, community members and patients alike. When I was giving a tour of a dialysis facility or the dialysis museum, Nancy was one of my go-to board members because her story was so compelling and she was knowledgeable and passionate about how to live well with kidney failure. During our 50th anniversary year, I spoke to numerous Rotary clubs throughout the Puget Sound region. The most well-received of those presentations were when Nancy joined me and fielded questions from the audience.
Nancy was also a generous donor to Northwest Kidney Centers. One of her major gifts was recognized by naming the home dialysis training center’s living room for families at our 15th and Cherry clinic in her honor. As a member of the Heritage Society, Nancy let us know that she had made plans for a legacy gift.
Nancy Spaeth’s legacy will continue to inspire others for years to come. She personified what every person living with kidney failure wants: she lived well and she lived a long and fulfilling life.
— Jane Pryor, CFRE
Northwest Kidney Centers Foundation Executive Director Emeritus
Retired Vice President of Development and Communications
In common with others who knew and admired Nancy, and indeed marveled at her, I have long entertained the thought that she might be immortal. Ever since those early days we shared at University Hospital I have looked on her as a legendary personality. All that has happened over nearly sixty years knowing her has only confirmed my earlier conviction. Her contributions to patient care are a legacy that will endure into the future.
I remember meeting Nancy for the first time in the mid 60’s when Dr. Scribner called me into his office. As I entered, he and Nancy were seated opposite each other, leaning forward, intently looking at a yellow sketch pad while Scrib described to her a hemodialysis circuit and accessories and how they were used. Later that day and for several days afterward, she learned to build and process the artificial kidney that she would use later for home hemodialysis. At that time, artificial kidneys, mass-produced and ready for use, were still years in the future.
Nancy’s legacy stems from her mature wisdom as a patient and caregiver who experienced virtually all the modalities of modern renal treatment. She focused on conveying to other patients the importance of taking control of one’s own care. She enjoyed giving presentations both informally and as an invited speaker, and was invigorated by the knowledge that she was making a difference. She was a gifted teacher.
She also was one of a kind, an original. My favorite “Nancy story” occurred several years ago when she was on an airliner flying from Seattle to the east coast. She was a peritoneal dialysis patient at the time. After the plane became airborne Nancy contrived to suspend a bag of PD fluid from the luggage compartment above her seat. She then, as she said, “fished my PD catheter from under my sweater”, connected it and started treatment as the aircraft flew east. The man in the seat next to her had been following her efforts intently. Nancy turned to him and began to explain that she was a kidney patient, at which point he interrupted her to say, “I know, I’m a nephrologist”.
— Jack Cole, former Research Associate, Dept. of Medicine, Division of Nephrology, University of Washington
The recent passing of this remarkable woman should give us all pause to ponder her challenging, consequential, and wondrous life. Nancy’s development of end-stage kidney disease early in life compelled her to educate herself about its care from nearly the dawn of renal replacement therapy (with Belding Scribner as her guide), through the advent of all subsequent modalities ranging from In-center hemodialysis, Home Hemodialysis, Peritoneal Dialysis and its permutations, Daily Hemodialysis-based therapies, and four renal transplants.
To this, Nancy brought her keen intellect, tenacity, analytical insight, and personal experience to the role of both caregiver and patient (for much of her life, she was both a practicing RN, dialysis or transplant patient, and parent at the same time). She also had a deeply-held approach to insuring excellence in provision of dialysis treatment and dietary therapy (in particular, stringent adherence to dietary and volume standards which she articulated on many occasions). In sum, she believed strongly in both the physiology of the science of end-stage kidney disease care, and understood the intensely personal nature of that care.
Early in my experience as CMO of Northwest Kidney Centers, I was asked to provide a comprehensive instructional module for new renal fellows covering a broad survey of dialysis medicine. I knew Nancy was such a unique person, caregiver, and patient that I asked her if she would lead a one-on-one seminar for each new fellow regarding central principles of dialytic care, which she gladly undertook. Unsurprisingly, she was warmly received over the course of many years. I have not known in my career a more knowledgeable expert on the experience of end-stage kidney disease and dialysis treatment from a combined nurse’s and patient’s perspective.
Nancy showed all of us how a working nurse, parent, and patient (frequently at the same time) could live well with end-stage kidney disease and repetitive transplants over many, many years. She was an heroic figure to all who knew her: we will remember her as a courageous and fearless patient, a devoted parent, and an esteemed, empathic colleague in the care of patients with serious illness.
— John C. Stivelman, MD
Emeritus CMO, Northwest Kidney Centers,
Emeritus Professor of Medicine, Department of Medicine, Division of Nephrology,
University of Washington School of Medicine
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