When the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed New York City last spring, critical care nurses from across the country were recruited to help respond to the crisis. Among them was Andrea Dalzell who had applied to work in an intensive care unit since graduating from nursing school in 2018. Her chance to work in an ICU finally came when she was offered a temporary contract at a New York area hospital. Not only was this an opportunity to help during a national crisis, but it also gave Dalzell the chance to prove her abilities as a nurse. It wasn't her qualifications that had been the barrier to finding a job. It was the fact that she uses a wheelchair.
Dalzell's difficulty in finding a nursing job ignited her passion to advocate for nurses with disabilities - most notably through her online and social media presence as TheSeatedNurse. Her efforts made such an impact that she recently received the first-ever $1 million Visionary Prize from the Craig H. Neilson Foundation, an organization that supports people with spinal cord injuries.
The recognition comes at an opportune time. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which celebrates the innovations people with disabilities can bring to the workplace. It reminds employers of the importance of inclusive hiring practices and encourages co-workers to embrace the unique skill sets that every person offers.
How are you using your platform as TheSeatedNurse to bring awareness for nurses with disabilities?
I'm telling my story in hopes that someone else finds the hope to keep going. I didn't start posting because I wanted to reach others. I was posting as an outlet to express my feelings about what I felt and saw. Somehow, it's now evolved to a way to reach nurses with all different types of disabilities who either acquired disability while working as a nurse or who had disability before even getting into nursing. People are reaching out asking, "How can I do what you're doing? What's the starting point for that?" Honestly, I don't even know the starting point for myself, because I'm still fighting this good fight. I'm trying to ensure that change does occur.
The Neilson Foundation generously recognized you for your advocacy work. How will this prize help amplify that?
I plan to make The Seated Nurse an actual foundation. We know there are organizations out there like Exceptional Nurse and the National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities. I want to advocate for a nursing school program that encompasses all different types of disabilities and educates students on how to use certain enablement technologies in healthcare. Right now that's non-existent. No school teaches this. No school is telling someone how they can hear even though they might have hearing loss. No one is teaching someone who is with a disability how to do body mechanic movements for their position. No one is teaching even nurses who are completely able how to actually properly lift and move. This doesn't happen in every school, so why not create a program that encompasses disability inclusion?
The hospital where you worked ended your contract after the COVID-19 surge. Would you like to get back onto the floor at some point?
Yes, 110%. My goal is to see what obstacles could potentially come after working on the floor in different settings and then be able to convey that knowledge. No one explains it, but I know what the concerns are for hiring a nurse who uses a wheelchair. It's the infection risk. How is she going to be able to keep up on the floor? How is she going to be able to push a gurney or a bed? How is she going to be able to turn and lift the patient? The thing is, you're not going to know the answers to these questions until you give someone the opportunity to show you. If you don't want to give the opportunity, why aren't you utilizing the accommodations that are granted to everyone? They're all equal opportunity employers.
Would you say you have unique capabilities as a nurse?
My body mechanics are different, so I'm not going to be injured the way another nurse might get injured when they lift or bend and pull a muscle. I'm on wheels and I'm sitting down. I'm not running around on the floor, and my arms are used to rolling for 12 hours a day.
Why did you want to become a critical care nurse?
I didn't always want to be a nurse. I wanted to become a doctor to figure out the cure to pain and make sure that people who have disabilities don't have to live with chronic pain. However, when I audited some medical school courses, every class focused on a person's disease process as if that's all it was. It was just the disease process. But they're forgetting the person. All of the nurses who cared for me used to tell me whatever I wanted to do, go for it. They gave me a piece of myself back. That's what really drove me to become a nurse.
I specifically wanted to become a critical care nurse. Imagine the impact you have to treat a patient in the ICU - fresh off an injury or new diagnosis that landed them there - and provide that little glimmer of hope that life doesn't end in the hospital bed. I can show them that someone else is living life with a disability and still living it in the "impossible" that has been put out into the world.
You've said you can empathize with many of your patients because you've been in their position? How so?
Anyone with any disability who is a nurse on the floor has that unique lens. Whether they are in the seated position like myself, whether they are missing a limb, whether they are a combat veteran who is now in critical care. We all bring a different lens to the table, but it's how it gets conveyed to the patient in the bed. For me, my disability is visible. The moment a patient sees me, they automatically know that I empathize with them. I don't have to say anything. I don't have to let them know that this is what I've been through. They see it, it's there.
Is there a certain experience as a nurse that stood out to you?
When I first started nursing school, a peer of mine had a patient who was refusing to have vitals taken and didn't want to get out of bed or go to physical therapy. She recently had a stroke and was left-side hemiplegic. She was just down and out. She didn't want anyone to touch her, didn't want anyone to be in the room. My peer asked me if I could help with the patient and I said, "Sure." I rolled into the room, and the woman, within seconds of looking at me, started crying. She looked at me and said, "I thought my life was over. I've never seen anyone else with a disability in here aside from patients." I replied, "Well, you're not going to get any better if you're just going to lay in bed." Within a half an hour, she was washed up and ready to go to therapy. Seeing me in my situation was the change for her life. What she didn't know was that she changed my life in that moment, too, because it made me realize that everything that I was fighting for was affirmed. I knew I was meant to be a nurse, and this gave me confidence.
What do you want others to know about nurses with disabilities?
To any of the hiring nurse managers or nurse educators - be open-minded. Give someone the opportunity to show you that they can do it. There are wonderful technologies in the world right now. People with disabilities have first-hand access to it, so they can do a job just like anyone else. If the technology isn't available, we're innovators, we figure it out. That's what makes nursing great for us, because we can see something and instantly think 50 steps ahead about what will work and what won't work.