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Nursing: Nurses Who Use Wheelchairs

  • Published: 2013-12-17 (Revised/Updated 2016-03-20) : Author: Thomas C. Weiss : Contact: Disabled World
  • Synopsis: A look at the nursing profession for nurses who also happen to be wheelchair users.

Quote: "Christine says that if the opportunity to speak with a student with a form of disability considering a nursing career arose she would say, "You definitely can do it.""

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Barry McKeown, who is a wheelchair user, has connected IV bags for people who have been in accidents, monitored heart rates in an intensive care unit, and counseled seniors. He saved the life of one person in an emergency using CPR, comforted children who are sick and provided inspiration to countless people facing personal tragedies. Barry has raced his wheelchair down the halls with a 7-year old opponent who used a wheelchair of his own as well.

When Barry rolled up the ramp to the stage at the Waikiki Shell as a part of the Hawaii Pacific University graduating class, he became perhaps the first person with paraplegia and possibly the nation to receive a bachelor's degree in nursing. Carol Winters Moorhead, HPU Professor and Dean of Nursing said, "Our faculty are willing to work with any student, but they weren't sure how he would navigate in the clinical facilities. But he has convinced them all he can do anything. He's amazing."

Barry said the challenges of pursuing a degree in nursing came more easily to him because he spent 20 years as an Emergency Medical Technician for the City and County of Honolulu and for the federal government at the Barking Sands Missile Range on Kaua'i. He was familiar with the steps required to stabilize people who were critically injured and the determination and strength needed to deal with trauma. Barry stated, "The one big issue was lifting a patient. I've been in the medical field for so long, and you never lift a patient by yourself. You always ask for help."

Nursing from a wheelchair during his clinical training; however, did present its challenges. To handle certain demands, Barry received a unique wheelchair that helps the user to stand up. He received the wheelchair through the Veterans Administration (VA), which gave him the additional height he needed. Barry is a Vietnam veteran. He said, "In my junior year they told me 'You can't continue unless you get a standup wheelchair." A letter from his nursing school found the VA paying for his wheelchair, which was made in France.

Christine, Another Nurse Who Uses a Wheelchair

Is Barry the only nurse in America who uses a wheelchair?

No - Christine does as well. In December of her junior year of nursing school Christine was in a car accident and survived the accident with T-4 paraplegia. The woman with her was also a nursing student. Christine was on a ventilator for around a month.

After the first month, she wore a body vest for about 6 months. She was unable to perform transfers or lifts. Her mother did everything for her. She could not catheterize herself because of the body vest. Christine remained in rehabilitation for around another month - first on a striker frame and after receiving the vest, for another 2 weeks.

When Christine got out of the hospital she took a course, an elective one, at a local college. She returned to her nursing school a year later to complete her last semester. She also drove again for the first time.

The administrators and faculty were involved with Christine from the start and were very positive and accommodating. When they heard from her friends that she had said, 'I am not coming back,' they actually came into the hospital and said, 'You are coming back.' The semester she returned to school Christine took a clinical course in community health nursing. She was worried about it because the instructors could send students anywhere in the county to visit patients. Luckily, her instructor set things up so all of her patients lived in rural communities and had ramps on their homes.

Christine made home visits with another nursing student because she had a car and the other student did not. In her nursing program the faculty always paired students. The other nursing student learned a great deal about spinal cord injuries from Christine. They drove hundreds and hundreds of miles in a rural area.

A number of Christine's patients were surprised when she showed up at their homes. The man with quadriplegia she visited knew she used a wheelchair, but the majority of her patients did not appear to know and were usually shocked. Some would say, "Oh my gosh! She's in a wheelchair!' Patients and their family members still say these things, according to Christine, and promptly question her abilities, as if having a physical disability has somehow affected her mind.

Every nurse's ability should be questioned, according to Christine, particularly in a rural area and when a medication is being administered. On the other hand, a nurse wearing a uniform and walking quickly into a home would not have their abilities questioned. Christine feels that her use of a wheelchair seems to project to people that she is somehow not as smart as a person who does not use a wheelchair.

What she does know is she had incredible insight into her patients and them with her because she was open with them. Every visit became a great experience on both parts. People with a form of disability seem to understand one-another. Christine says that as a nurse she likes to show people how to lose focus on their disability and issues and to believe they can do more than they expect.

Christine became more interested in nursing after experiencing disability herself; not in the technical skills, but in acquiring information. She was not interested in just giving shots to people. The experiences of her accident and consequent hospitalization stimulated her awareness in the entire scope of nursing.

After she graduated, Christine found work in mental health services as a counselor in both an inpatient hospital and in a nursing home. She kept the job for several months and then moved to be closer to a state-of-the-art rehabilitation center for therapy. Christine wanted to participate in the bicycling and walking programs. While she went for that reason, she soon became the Clinical Coordinator for the program.

Christine says she has only had one administrator who experienced difficulties with her injury. The majority have been positive about working relationships. She has had administrators who have said, 'We are going upstate in 2 hours. Get your stuff, I am putting you in the van and we are on our way.' Christine says the attitude was, 'So what if you have a disability.'

Most of her professional experiences with nurses and other staff members have been very positive. Christine has not had trouble in regards to her disability. She does know that some people in the medical field have difficulties with nurses who have a form of disability though. Christine says these medical personnel do not know if you are as smart or hardworking or motivated as a person who comes to work in a Liz Claiborne suit and snazzy leather shoes. People still tend to judge by outward appearances, she said.

Christine says that if the opportunity to speak with a student with a form of disability considering a nursing career arose she would say, "You definitely can do it." She would also tell such a student that it depends on the structure of the program and how narrow or unbending the people involved with the program are. Our greatest barriers are not physical; they are mental, according to Christine.

Not every nurse needs to administer shots; not every nurse needs to use all 10 fingers. Not every nurse needs to walk into a room. Not every nurse needs to practice in a hospital setting, says Christine. She says she read medical records for attorneys. Her knowledge base is strong and she uses that knowledge; she does not have to go to a hospital and turn patients each morning. Christine says, 'I am still a nurse.'


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