A woman standing between two men dressed as zombies
Heather DuHamel Sams worked on film sets while she was a student at VCU in the 1990s. Now, the 1993 VCU graduate and registered nurse serves as health and safety supervisor on productions locally and across the country. Sams (center) stands alongside two zombies who are part of "The Walking Dead" universe. (Courtesy Heather DuHamel Sams)

Richmond-based nurse, a VCU grad, keeps ‘The Walking Dead’ and other productions safe and healthy

Heather DuHamel Sams’ career, which she started as a part-time film hand while earning her undergraduate degree at VCU, has come full circle as she advocates for film crews on set and swabs the stars.

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Teaching an actor how to play dead better may be the last thing Heather DuHamel Sams thought she’d do as the health and safety supervisor on the set of Apple TV+’s “Raymond and Ray.” In a position where her job was to ensure that everyone — from the crew to the actors — was safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, the request came as a bit of a surprise.

But, during the production in Richmond last fall of the comedy-drama about two half-brothers reuniting over the death of their father, her role expanded to meet the needs of the film. Sams, a nurse who has worked in ICUs, critical care settings and schools, advised actor Tom Bower on how to “look more dead” to make a scene feel realistic.

For Sams, a 1993 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, it was just another twist in a wide-ranging career that has brought her unexpected and exciting experiences. She has been called a unicorn for her unique background and set of skills.

“When people hear that I’m a registered nurse and I worked in film production before, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re the unicorn. You’re the one we’ve been looking for,’ because there’s not very many of us that are medically trained that know our way around a film set,” Sams said. “But I have had this crazy career, and it’s all come full circle.”

A part-time job ‘full of adventure’ started it all

Her experience gleaned while completing her B.S. in recreation, parks and tourism with a minor in environmental studies has helped bring that career full circle, Sams said. As a VCU student in the 1990s, she worked part-time as a production secretary and production coordinator at a film production house in Richmond, working on commercials and TV and film shoots.

“It was a job full of adventure and something different every day,” Sams said.

After graduating from VCU with dreams of entering the world of environmental tourism, she began working in professional and Olympic sports as an operations specialist, traveling the world and coordinating and setting up cycling events, including the Olympic trials in Charlotte, N.C., and other events in China and Hong Kong. She soon took those skills to the Richmond Renegades, the city’s professional ice hockey franchise at the time, where she became director of business operations. Then, in 1998, a new opportunity came her way.

“A friend of mine called and said, ‘Heather, you take care of all of these athletes. You’ve done this kind of work before. I want to ask you if you want to come work for an actor,’” Sams said.

Sams said yes and spent the next few years working as a personal assistant for actor Brett Cullen while he starred on the TV show, “Legacy,” as it filmed in Richmond. Sams then moved to Hollywood and served as a personal assistant for actor Penelope Ann Miller.

When Miller took a break from acting to start a family, Sams moved into a role in public relations for Brooks Running in Seattle as part of the team that created the brand’s long-running tagline “Run happy.” After Sept. 11, 2001, Sams felt a pull to move closer to home, so the Hopewell native returned to Virginia and began work on a second degree at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College with her sights set on becoming a registered nurse. After completing her degree in nursing, she met her husband, Steve, and in a few years, became a mother to three children.

Sams worked as a nurse in critical care settings and diabetes education, before she made the switch to serving as a school and public health nurse at public and private schools in Henrico County where she lives, a role she continued through the beginning of the pandemic. Then, Sams said, a call came that brought her back to film productions in a new way.

“One day out of the blue, I got a phone call from a friend who said, ‘Hey, this TV show is coming to town, and they need somebody to help on it doing COVID-19 testing for all their productions.’ And she said, ‘Heather, this isn’t my kind of job. It’s your kind of job because you’ve done this before,’” Sams said. “So, I ended up sending my resume over, and the next thing I know, I’m the head of the Health and Safety Department for ‘The Walking Dead: World Beyond,’ which was shot in Richmond, January through August of 2021. And I’ve been working back-to-back films and television ever since.”

Advocating for safety and swabbing the stars

As the health and safety supervisor and, sometimes, as a COVID-19 nurse for half a dozen film and TV productions since last year, Sams’ role, in many cases, has involved testing everyone involved with a production anywhere from one to five times a week for COVID-19.

Some productions have sent her to locations across the country, such as “Interview with the Vampire” in New Orleans, “Lady in the Lake” in Baltimore, “The Walking Dead: Dead City” in New York and New Jersey and, currently, “Dark Winds” in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Others, such as “The Walking Dead: World Beyond” and “Raymond and Ray,” have kept her close to home. It’s work that has gotten her kids’ attention: Her middle child, who has an interest in creative writing and the horror genre, has shown interest in the behind-the-scenes of “The Walking Dead,” while her oldest son, now in college in New York, has been able to lend a hand on some productions.

But beyond bringing her kids into the fold, productions such as “Raymond and Ray,” which released widely on Apple TV+ on Oct. 21, have also brought her closer to her roots.

“It was one of our first days of filming, and it was funny because one of the places we filmed was upstairs from the office that my dad had at the bank he ran in Hopewell. It was bringing it all back, like ‘Oh my gosh, here I am all these years later, standing in this office above my dad’s old office,’” Sams said. “There’s all these little signs and funny things that have happened along the way.”

The latest phase of her career has brought Sams new levels of fulfillment while tapping into her range of interests and abilities.

“It’s really brought my career full circle and combined all of the things that I love about being in film and television: the creativity, the adventure, the excitement,” Sams said. “And it also still allows me to be a nurse, be a person who is able to stand up for the health and the safety of our crews and to be their advocate and their voice, not only when they’re sick but to help make conditions better for them.

A woman standing behind a tombstone
The crew of “Raymond and Ray” made an impression on VCU graduate Heather DuHamel Sams by letting her be part of some movie magic. “The art department, they did something really cheeky. They had us all, if we wanted, we could have our names on tombstones in the cemetery,” Sams said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, yeah, of course. I want my name on my tombstone.’ So I have my name on a tombstone that’s right next to the grave in the movie.” Her tombstone says, "You will always be in our hearts," a nod to her work as the film's health and safety supervisor. (Courtesy Heather DuHamel Sams)

“When we watch film and television shows, we often just see the faces on the screen. We don’t think about those hundreds of folks at the end of the credits, and behind those names are families, are partners, are friends who support them. To me, getting to know the crews and having them trust me and having them trust my team to keep them going every day is the most rewarding thing.”

The work also gets her up close and personal with movie stars. But she’s accustomed to it. On the last day of production for “Raymond and Ray,” Ewan McGregor came to get his COVID-19 test. His co-star Ethan Hawke had been to Richmond for several productions, Sams said, but this was McGregor’s first time.

“Before he and his wife and family traveled back to L.A., one of the last things he said to me – and it just tickles me – he said, ‘Heather, I really have loved being here in Richmond. Do you think I could come back sometime and work with you guys?’ And it tickles me, right? Because he’s one of the biggest actors in Hollywood. He’s Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Sams said. “But he just loved being here; he loved the community and the crew. And so I said, ‘Yeah, I think we could make that happen, Ewan.’”