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This RN Who Uses a Wheelchair Is Treating COVID-19 Patients in NYC

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Tatiana Lee is a Hollywood Inclusion Associate at RespectAbility.

Andrea Dalzell, RN, BSN, was told that she would never be able to become a nurse due to her disability. Today, she is one of the few registered nurses who uses a wheelchair. Currently, she is working in one of the areas hardest hit by COVID-19 – the New York metro area.

Dalzell is a disability advocate and represented her home state as Ms. Wheelchair New York in 2015. She studied biology and neuroscience in college while earning her associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in nursing. Dalzell was diagnosed with transverse myelitis at the age of 5 and began using a wheelchair full-time at the age of 12.

Dalzell shares firsthand about her journey to becoming a nurse, why it’s important for people with disabilities to be in the medical industry, and advice for wheelchair users in the current climate of COVID-19.

Q: What was your inspiration for becoming a nurse?

A: I never wanted to be a nurse. As a child, I wanted to be a lawyer. I was going to sue all the doctors that caused me any extreme amount of pain. As a teen I said I would become a doctor. I was going to help spinal cord injury and illness patients because half the doctors I ever saw knew nothing about my disability. While studying for medical school and auditing medical school classes, I realized doctors treat the disease and I never wanted to look at someone as a disease, but as a whole person. Nurses do that and that’s where my mindset shifted to nursing.

Q: What challenges have you faced getting to this point in your career as a person with a disability?

A: Like any person with a disability, an ability is often shadowed by the visible component of a physical mobility device. My wheelchair often created this sense of inability for those who didn’t know me. In high school, I was told that I would only go to a community college and live off of Social Security for the rest of my life. (That was because I refused to take the yellow bus to school and demanded a Metro Card to get on the city bus).

My first day of nursing school-mandated orientation, I was told I could leave because they were unsure if I would be able to participate in the program and they would get back to me. I decided to stay and after the orientation, I went to my college diversity and compliance office to file an ADA discrimination report because I had already been accepted to the program, they couldn’t deny me now.

During my clinical rotations, I was often pulled off hospital units because I was told that I was an infection risk, or my wheelchair was a safety hazard. I was questioned on my abilities more than any of my peers and often told I could not or would never be an acute care nurse.

Q: Why is it important for people with disabilities to have the opportunity to become medical professionals?

A: I am a firm believer in the fact that just because you treat a disability, doesn’t mean that you can speak on disability. Having us in the professional field exposes holes in the care given and received in not only hospitals but in clinics and access to said care.

The understanding and experience is different. Any person with any type of disability can be a nurse. The misconception comes with the false assumption that a disability means you’re incapable. Every single person’s ability is different. What I am able to do at my injury level may not be another person’s ability at the same level.

Our voice can change the whole system.

Q: What does your disability bring to the table that makes you a better nurse?

A: Perception. I don’t automatically see inability in a person. My bedside manner is above and beyond the average nurse or doctor. My ability to be innovative under stressful circumstances is vital, especially during the current pandemic.

Q: What would you say to employers who want to consider hiring people with disabilities to work in the medical profession?

A: Have an open mind and give a fair chance. Own up to that diversity statement on the company website. See the value that a difference can bring to the company.

Q: What does a typical workday look like for you in the current climate of COVID-19?

A: To be honest, I’d rather not answer this question. Most nurses do not want to answer this question. I will tell you this much, it is nothing I have ever seen, or want to see again. It is beyond stressful and taxing emotionally and physically. The main point is I am doing the job, doing the job well and not finding the issues that were supposed to make this job impossible for a wheelchair user.

Q: What do you want the public to know about the current pandemic we are facing?

A: The use of gloves is not good! Wheelchair and mobile device users are using gloves as a way to protect themselves when in actuality, it is causing more contamination. Most will say their doctors told them to. That’s fine, but then understand how to use them and when to use them. If you are going to disinfect every item you touch with them off and then again with them on, it’s the only way to prevent contamination and even then, the likelihood of cross-contamination is extremely high.

Q: What advice do you have for people with disabilities wanting to enter the medical profession?

A: Believe in yourself enough to know your worth and that you belong. This profession will try to shut every door until we collectively say we belong. We are here, we can do the job. Don’t worry about the school loans, just apply and go for it!

Follow Andrea Dalzell on Instagram @theseatednurse.

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Originally published: May 9, 2020
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