Nurse Who Uses A Wheelchair Shares Her Inspirational Story
Do you remember your acceptance letter for nursing school? Do you remember how you felt? Anxious? Nervous? Excited? Maybe you felt a rush of all of those feelings. How about scared that someone would turn you around when you showed up for orientation or your first class? Imagine doing everything right to get into nursing school. You got the grades. Passed the entrance exams. All of that and someone tells you to leave because they thought you wouldn’t make it as a nurse. That’s what Andrea Dalzell BSN, RN experienced. A registered nurse who happens to be a wheelchair user, known as “The Seated Nurse,” Andrea shares her journey with us.
PW: Tell us about your nursing journey. Why did you decide to become a nurse? How long have you been a nurse? What's your specialty?
AD: At the age of five, I was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis. It's a neurological disorder that damages the myelin that protects the nerves of the spinal cord. At 12, I was no longer able to walk and used a wheelchair full time for my mobility needs. My diagnosis mimics a spinal cord injury, so I am considered a T 10 to L 1 incomplete paraplegic.
I didn't always wish to be a nurse. When I was younger, I said that I would be a lawyer so that I could sue the doctors for all the pain they put me through. I had to get permission to leave the hospital to attend my junior high school graduation. My doctor and nurse practitioner attended my graduation and wrote in my memory book, "please anything but a lawyer."
I went into high school thinking I was going to be a doctor and figure out how to cure pain to be the best healthcare professional for those who use wheelchairs. In auditing medical college classes, I realized that the medical model is built around the disease process and treating a diagnosis and not treating a "whole person." I never wanted to tell anyone they would never be able to do something and that their quality of life is no longer great because of a disability. Having conversations with nurses gave me the thought that I could be a nurse. I could treat people holistically and not just based on their disease process.
PW: What challenges have you faced?
AD: It has been an uphill battle since I started my journey in Nursing. When I got into nursing school, it was based on my grades. When I showed up on my first day of a mandated orientation, I was pulled out of the class and told that I could leave the orientation because the professors were unsure of how I would be able to be a nurse. They told me my wheelchair posed many problems, and that nursing would be too hard for me to do. My challenges usually stem from someone else's biases of disability — a closed mind — and not based on my actual ability.
PW: Tell us how you were able to overcome those challenges?
AD: I knew before I got into the nursing program that I would have to be physically strong enough to do CPR. So, I took up boxing to build my strength and stamina for chest compressions. I was the first person in my program with a disability, so I made sure to have an open line of communication. There was a learning curve on both ends. Some clinical professors spoke up for me in hospital settings and ensured that I got the experiences that my peers got. In some instances, I was excluded simply because of accessibility. Sometimes it was because my wheelchair was seen as an infection risk.
PW: What's a typical day like for you on your unit? What adjustments, if any, have you had to make?
AD: There is this sense of having to make accommodations for someone who may have different abilities. In some cases, this is true, but the individual should determine it.
During my COVID contract, I cleaned my wheelchair before I got on the unit, and then when I left. Outside of that, I had no additional adjustments and no accommodations to do the job. I understand that every individual has different needs, and no one should be afraid of providing reasonable accommodations to get the job done. Too often, people emphasize a person's ability and not the technology we have at our fingers to make a job easier and safer.
PW: Do you feel like you have any limitations? What advice do you have for other nurses who others feel are limited?
AD: Those who see my chair as a hindrance place limitations on me. My wheelchair is freedom and allows me to not only leave my home but also to engage in the community and be a part of society. Society is the hindrance — when we put costs over commitment to change. Change comes when we see a need and don't question how we are going to fix it by ourselves, but have a collective conversation that leads to a plan of action. People with all types of disabilities have a place and deserve to be valued for the brilliance they bring to every facet. My advice is:
- See the obstacles as a challenge to change for someone else
- Speak up
- Don't let society's limitations of you stop you from having value or a voice to make change happen
Change only occurs when someone has the courage to speak up.
National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities - If you’re a nurse, nursing student or aspiring nurse with disabilities, you’re not alone!
Learn how to communicate with your patients with disabilities here.
Follow Andrea on Instagram @theseatednurse
Facebook: Andrea Dalzell
Portia Wofford is a nurse and writer. After dedicating her nursing career to creating content and solutions for employers that affected patient outcomes, these days Wofford strives to empower nurses by offering resources for mental wellbeing--while helping healthcare organizations and entrepreneurs create engaging content that connects and converts. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter for her latest.
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