As a wheelchair user striving to become a nurse, Andrea Dalzell has been surrounded by doubt from day one. Nursing school administrators questioned her ability to complete the program. Hospital administrators told her insurance wouldn’t cover her. Faculty doubted her ability to safely administer the duties of the job.
Dalzell, 29, learned to tune them out. “I detach from whatever situation is actually happening and just take a moment to remember why I’m doing it,” she says. “Part of that is to say that I’m out there in the world doing something that someone told me that I couldn’t do. And that’s something that we’ve all been told at one point or another, that we can’t do something. That’s my fuel for the fire. Tell me I can’t, so that I can show you how well I can.”
Whether it was passing finals with the highest grades, receiving exemplary feedback from patients’ families or simply figuring out a way to accomplish her daily responsibilities from her chair, Dalzell has done more than just show she can be a nurse; she has proven she can be an excellent one. Later this year she will graduate from the College of Staten Island with her bachelor’s in nursing and take her boards. Then she will finally be a nurse.
Back when Dalzell started her quest, all she had to hang onto was her belief in herself and a sole YouTube video. The video showed another woman who had attended nursing school in a wheelchair. That was all Dalzell needed — if someone else had done it, so could she. Still, every day presented new challenges.
“My peers all had someone to look to, other nurses that they could ask how to do things. I couldn’t ask someone who is standing up how they did something because I have to adapt that to me,” she says. “I deal with it every day when I’m in clinical. A professional will ask, how do you expect to do this? And I have to show them that I can do it.”
Later this year Andrea Dalzell plans to add a nursing degree to the bachelors of biology/ biological sciences she earned in 2012.How does she do it? “By thinking 20 steps ahead of everyone else all the time,” she says. Even with constant vigilance, Dalzell says accomplishing what she has would have been near impossible without the support of her family, friends and fellow students. “All of them are like, ‘Oh, no, we’ve got you. Don’t worry about it. Whatever you need, just ask us.’”
As if merely proving the doubters wrong was not enough, she received the ultimate reinforcement of her decision while working with a person who recently had a stroke. The partially paralyzed woman had been posing problems for Dalzell’s coworkers and refused to get out of bed. Oozing positivity, Dalzell rolled into the room as a favor to a colleague. She began to worry when the woman instantly started crying hysterically. As Dalzell tried to calm her, the woman explained her reaction. “I’ve never seen a nurse in a chair. I thought my life was over.” Seeing Dalzell had given her hope.
“In that moment her whole life changed,” recalls Dalzell. “She went from this patient who was giving everyone a hard time, had given up on life and was probably headed to a nursing home, to now — an hour later, after getting cleaned up and in her chair — she was ready to go to therapy.”
Can’t Live Without – iWatch:
If Dalzell’s face looks familiar, it may be from her central role in Apple’s new ad campaign for the iWatch, which focuses on its accessible features.
I was blown away by the whole process of filming. It wasn’t staged, what you see is literally my life — what I do every day. Everyone wants to be fit, but when it comes to wheelchair users and having to track what we do, it’s a whole different ballgame. Before, there was nothing out on the market that differentiates between steps and pushes. I use the iWatch to track calories when I’m cycling, boxing or just working out. I love being able to see the difference in burning calories between pushing and walking. But more than a fitness tracker or a watch, the iWatch has become a lifesaver. I deal with autonomic dysreflexia and it helps me monitor my heartbeat, so whenever it gets too high, I can do something before it gets outrageous.
Advice to My Younger Self:
If I could go back and tell myself one thing before I used a wheelchair, I wouldn’t say a thing. In order to be the strong person I am today, I needed to go through everything I have.
The craziest thing I’ve done is probably when my sister and I went skydiving in New Jersey. We decided to meet death on our terms. It was the most freeing experience.
Why I Joined United Spinal:
Being a member makes you part of a community; it gives you a home base — people who understand what you are going through, or are at least able to support or help you get you through whatever it is. That’s incredibly important when you have a disability.