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I Spent My Childhood At The Doctors—Now I Help Others Advocate For Themselves As A Nurse

Andrea Dalzell
Registered Nurse & Healthcare Advocate
By Andrea Dalzell
Registered Nurse & Healthcare Advocate
Andrea Dalzell is a registered nurse with a degree from the City University of New York, College of Staten Island. She worked as the first registered nurse in a wheelchair in New York state while tending to coronavirus patients during the height of the pandemic. She is also a aealthcare advocate, disability rights influencer
Andrea Dalzell portrait
While some health issues are visible to the outside world, many people face chronic conditions that don't have externally visible signs or symptoms—also known as invisible illnesses. In this mindbodygreen series, we're giving individuals with invisible illnesses a platform to share their personal experiences. Our hope is their stories will shed light on these conditions and offer solidarity to others facing similar situations.

At the age of five, I was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare neurological condition that causes inflammation of the spinal cord. From this time, I remember doctor's offices, poking and prodding, and never being allowed to just be a child. But as a kid, you kind of adapt.

It wasn't until the age of 12 that my condition really started to impact me: I stopped walking completely and started using a wheelchair full-time.

Tuning out other people’s beliefs about what I could do 

As a teenager, you're already going through your hormonal changes on the inside, and everything on the outside is exacerbated. Nobody wants to have to miss out on school because they have to go to a doctor's office or be bullied because of a disability.

But the hardest part was how it impacted my independence. Everyone around me was always telling me to be careful or not to do something. I felt like I was a child first learning how to walk. 

At the time, I was fighting for my confidence. I was fighting to be seen as one of my peers despite my chair. I was already questioning my use of the device. Having adults placing their own fears on me was suffocating and it made me lose my confidence even more.

Helping others like me

As a kid, I wanted to be a healthcare lawyer and do malpractice law. I even told all my doctors that I was going to come back and sue them for all the pain they put me through. At one of my graduations, I was signed out of the hospital for the day, and my doctor and nurse practitioner came to make sure I was okay. In my memory book, they wrote, “please, anything but a lawyer.” 

I then realized that suing for pain didn’t make the pain go away. I’d have to cure the pain of others instead.

By the end of my undergrad, I’d come to believe that the problem with the medical model is that it looks at people as though they are a disease process. I disagreed with the way the system sees people as just a number. But I knew that it wasn’t so cut-and-dried in nursing, because nursing tends to believe in the holistic, whole-picture view of the person.

I'd never seen a nurse who had a disability themselves. I decided I’d have to be the first.

The long journey to becoming a nurse

 My first job as a registered nurse was as a clinical camp director. My goal was to become a CRNA, which is a nurse anesthetist. In order to do that, you need to have clinical background hours in the ICU, emergency department, or somewhere specialized.

I went through 76 interviews for clinical patient care placement, and I was rejected from all of them.

I went through 76 interviews for clinical patient care placement, and I was rejected from all of them. I had other job interviews for case management and clerking, and I would get desk jobs. But when it came down to clinical care, I was met with bias. It always came down to, “but in an emergency, how will you do XYZ?”

Since hospitals had never had someone with a disability in the room besides patients, they couldn’t imagine what it would look like. As human beings, we tend to use ourselves as a comparison model. If you don't think you can do something, you doubt that someone else could do it.

But people with disabilities have lived with disabilities, and they know what they can and can’t do. They don't want to be embarrassed. They don't want to harm anyone else or get hurt.

I believe my chronic illness actually equips me in certain ways. The fact that my patient history is as long as it is gives me a different perspective. It helps me be able to talk patients through their most vulnerable times because I've been there. I've been the patient on the table lying naked in front of a room full of strangers before I'm put out for surgery, thinking all of the worst things in the world. 

When someone comes into an emergency room for the first time, I can talk them through it. And not just by giving them the cold hard bullet points of what's about to happen, but what may make them feel uncomfortable, what they can request, who they should speak to, and how they can advocate for themselves

What I want others to know 

Right now, I'm a school nurse consultant, and I consult for disability health care. Being a nurse during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City, (editors note: and New York State’s first nurse to use a wheelchair, at that) showed me that our healthcare systems are not prepared to take care of people with disabilities. We are not prepared to take care of anyone who is even remotely outside of what we consider the "societal norm."

Even someone who may be bigger and can't fit into a CT scan or MRI... what happens to their treatments or their diagnoses? A lot of people who use mobility devices are overweight, and then doctors will automatically deem them non-compliant or deem their disability weight-related. There's also this bias that healthcare workers have to be healthy in order to take care of people. And I know that's not true either.

My experience taught me that we should be actively promoting more inclusive societies, starting within our healthcare system.

Advice I’d give to others in my position

For anyone dealing with a chronic illness diagnosis right now, know that you don't have to accept the terms of the diagnosis or the limits that are put on you. But you do have to accept that you've been given the diagnosis. If you fight it, that’s going to exhaust you quicker. 

And then your next choice is to include your family. Your family is not in your mind. As much as they're there in the room with you, they don’t know what you’re going through mentally. So include them in that. 

Every time we walk out of our door, it's not guaranteed that we get to come back through that door the same way. And the faster we realize that, the more we can plan for everybody in our society to be truly included.

Andrea Dalzell author page.
Andrea Dalzell
Registered Nurse & Healthcare Advocate

Andrea Dalzell is a phenomenal and passionate Registered Nurse, a highly active Healthcare Advocate, Disability Rights Influencer, and most importantly, a strong Survivor!

Andrea Dalzell was born and raised in the heart of the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn, New York. At the early age of five, Andrea was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord that causes pain, muscle weakness and paralysis and was using a wheelchair full-time by age 12. Although this diagnosis was very critical, Andrea let absolutely nothing get in the way of being all that she could be.

Andrea received her degree from the City University of New York, College of Staten Island, however, due to societal flaws, life after graduation for Andrea was only the beginning of a long disappointing journey of trying to convince hospital staff that she could handle the job duties of being a nurse in a wheelchair.

Andrea was crowned Ms. Wheelchair New York 2015, and utilized her title and platform: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Access, to promote her message and belief that people with disabilities can live a fulfilling life.

While diligently trying to secure a position in a hospital, Dalzell worked as the health director, case manager, and an in-school nurse to make ends meet, however, she continued to interview in pursuit of her goal of becoming a Registered Nurse.

After 76 interviews, Andrea Dalzell was finally given the opportunity to prove herself and was hired as the first Registered Nurse in a wheelchair in New York state. As the first registered nurse in a wheelchair in New York state; these days Andrea Dalzell is still getting lots of attention for her role tending to coronavirus patients in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic.

Ms. Dalzell has been ultimately respected most for her influence and healthcare advocacy for the rights of those with disabilities throughout her journey. As an advocate and activist, she’s has been recognized in the spotlight over the years including being named New Mobility’s Person of the Year (2021), Craig H. Neilsen Visionary Prize Winner, an ambassadorship with Urbane Scrubs, and features in United Spinal, HomeCare Magazine, Apple’s iWatch campaign, The Mighty/Yahoo, Forbes and also Nurse Blake.