In New York City, at a time when life was in a tailspin trying to cope with the spread of a pandemic, Andrea Dalzell, BSN, RN, was experiencing the personal satisfaction of beginning the job she had been seeking for two years. “I finished nursing school, passed my boards, and began searching for a job that most nurses would see as the ideal, entry-level job in a hospital, working directly with patients,” Dalzell said. “I am now working as a med-surg nurse treating non-coronavirus patients in a major medical center. Finally, I can realize my goal of providing a voice within the healthcare system to help others with disabilities.” Dalzell is one of approximately 20 registered nurses working in patient care in the United States who uses a wheelchair.
Dalzell, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis, a neurological condition that causes inflammation of the spinal cord, at the age of 5, and lost her ability to walk by the time she was 12 years old. “While I was in high school, I decided I wanted to become a doctor to help change the way people with disabilities are treated in the healthcare system,” Dalzell said. “After I earned degrees in Biology and Neuroscience at the College of Staten Island, I began auditing some medical school classes. During this time, I realized that doctors treat the disease and nurses treat the patient. I knew I wanted the personal experience of treating patients, and that nursing was the path of my future.”
A nursing career might seem unattainable for someone who uses a wheelchair, but Andrea was willing to meet the challenge. “I wanted to be the person who could enter a patient’s room and potentially change their mindset about future possibilities.” This “seated” registered nurse is aware of the need for a voice for individuals with disabilities within the healthcare system. “I believe it is a misconception that because you treat someone with a disability, you get to speak on their behalf,” Dalzell said. “Too often, there exists a lack of understanding and knowledge of what a patient with disabilities needs in certain situations. I always question ‘Who is speaking for me?’ and, in turn, I am concerned about who is speaking for my peers. I hope that by example, I can influence others with disabilities to seek a career in healthcare.”
Although she has often encountered doubt from others, Dalzell is confident in her abilities. She admits that her pursuit of a nursing career hasn’t always been easy, yet she remained focused and committed to her goal. “I’ve accomplished something that the world told me I couldn’t,” Dalzell said. “We’ve all been told that at some time or another, and we react in different ways. For me, that’s fuel for my fire. Tell me I can’t do something, and I’ll show you how well I can.” Knowing she would need to be very well prepared to enter the job market, Dalzell earned additional certifications in advanced cardiovascular life support and pediatric advance life support. She recognized her potential limitations for performing CPR, took up boxing to build up her strength to do chest compressions, and earned that certification with ease.
Dalzell was crowned Ms. Wheelchair New York 2015 and has been featured in O Magazine and on local NYC television. In recognition of her advocacy work and leadership, she received the Cindy Loo Disability Rights Advocate Award in 2015 as well as the 2016 CUNY Emerging Leader of the Year award. Andrea was recently featured in the Raw Beauty Project, a New York arts project celebrating women with disabilities and educating viewers to redefine perceptions and beauty. She also inspired the addition to the Apple Watch to track “pushes” for wheelchair users instead of steps and was featured in an Apple Watch commercial. “Filming that commercial was one of the best experiences of my life!”
No doubt, working as a med-surg nurse in a major medical center in New York City is another “best experience” in Dalzell’s life. “A medical-surgical nurse is what I consider the frontline nurse. This nurse can handle anything that comes to her unit, whether it be a psych patient, a patient that is on a ventilator, or a patient that had surgery. If this job opportunity can happen here, at this time, it is a validation for everyone with a disability across the nation that there is a place for us in the workplace,” Dalzell said. “I believe the disability unemployment rate is almost triple that of the non-disabled population. As I’ve learned during the two years since I finished nursing school, it can definitely be a challenge for a person with disabilities to find meaningful employment, but it can happen. We must be especially diligent in increasing our knowledge and experience. We cannot allow others to define who we are and what we are capable of.”
Upon completion of nursing school, Dalzell’s goal was to go straight into a hospital setting, but that didn’t happen. “I went through 76 interviews for acute care as well as other interviews for long-care management, case management, respite care nursing, and research nursing,” A Dalzell said. “I applied for every possibility within the realm of nursing. When I would get a call back, I would follow through. Still, the opening in a hospital setting didn’t come. I worked as a case management nurse for a year and barely hung on, but it allowed me to prove my work ethic.” Dalzell knew that case management was not the job she wanted long term. “I was adding experience to my license,” she said. “I wasn’t going to be a novice nurse forever. I was adding to my worth.”
Dalzell has learned a great deal through her experiences but considers her education as a critical factor in her life’s journey. When asked for advice or words of encouragement for other individuals with disabilities who are pursuing a career, Dalzell said, “Take advantage of every opportunity possible to further your education. Your education is always going to be with you, whether you get a certain job. People can discriminate, they can judge, and they can throw their perceptions, but no one can take away what you have worked to obtain or your goals. You have to be strong in your conviction. I had my moments when I wanted to change fields or simply give up. However, I would remind myself how far I had come and how I had succeeded when others caused me to feel ‘less than.’ It is essential to believe in yourself, your goals, and your accomplishments. Don’t allow anyone else to dictate what that means for you.”
Regarding the pursuit of a job or career, Dalzell believes there are many avenues to get where you want, but you must wait for those avenues to come together for the result you desire. “A person with a disability has to be particularly diligent to meet their commitment to an employer,” Dalzell said. “Don’t jeopardize your health for your job but be mindful of dissuading the notion that an employee with a disability will be absent from work more often than other employees. Build your experience until you get the job you want and show that you are a stellar employee with value.”
“Generally, we don’t think of a nurse being in a wheelchair and, if you are the nurse in a wheelchair, you have to be aware that it may be difficult for most people to understand that you are capable,” Dalzell said. “I understand the hesitancy of a nurse manager to hire me to work in her unit. Hiring a registered nurse is an expensive investment for any facility, and hospital administration is considering the big picture of the dynamics of staff. My being in a wheelchair presented an additional consideration that many were not willing to risk.” However, Dalzell didn’t give up or allow others to determine her future.
“When the pandemic hit New York with a vengeance, nurse recruiters began sending emails and messages practically begging for nurses to apply, and I did,” Dalzell said. “At each step in the hiring process, I held my breath, expecting the rejection I had experienced so many times. After I was hired and sitting in on my first unit report, a director questioned whether my wheelchair might be an infection risk. I respectfully stood my ground and continued with my orientation. During my first week at the hospital, I had many opportunities to exhibit my knowledge and confidence. Following a shift working together, one of my co-workers admitted that she was sorry that she had underestimated me in the beginning. That was a satisfying moment!
“Now, I have a job as a hospital nurse and take care of people all night (or all day if I am on that shift). I love every minute of it!” Dalzell said. “It is ironic to me that I started this job, an opportunity I have wanted for so long, at the same time that everyone in New York was put under a ‘stay-at-home’ order.” A mentor of Dalzell’s recently remarked, “It took a pandemic for this ‘seated’ nurse to get hired.”
You may contact Andrea Dalzell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrea Dalzell, BSN, RN is a consumer advocate who lives in New York.