Cool Nurse on Wheels: Nursing With Spina Bifida and a Wheelchair

My parents were expecting to become the parents of a healthy baby girl. That turned out to not be the case.

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I was born with a form of spina bifida called myelomeningocele. The covering of my spinal cord and the spinal nerves from L4-L5 were in a sack outside of my back, creating permanent nerve damage from the area of L4 down.
My family raised me with a “can do” attitude, and I was never treated any differently than the other kids in my family.  This attitude shaped who I am now.
Becoming a nurse was the ultimate goal for me; and from day one, I was not going to let anyone or anything stand in my way.  It’s what I was born to do.
I e-mailed several nursing schools. All of the responses were negative. Some schools even offered me free counseling to change my major.
The only school I applied to was Wright State University. I decided to disclose my spina bifida in the essay that I was required to submit.
I was elated when I got the letter of admittance.  
The assistant dean vowed to help me. We would take it quarter by quarter, meeting prior to the start of each clinical.  If it was not an essential function for nursing, then we discussed delegating the task.  If I knew there was a lift or transfer that I could not perform, I asked a classmate to do it for me, promising to lend my help when he or she needed it.
I wanted to stay close to my friends and family after graduation, so I decided to look for jobs around Dayton.  It was there that I got my first taste of what was to come.
I interviewed at numerous hospitals and even worked with recruiters, but I got turned down for every job.  I disclosed my spina bifida before some interviews; for others, I did not say anything until I went into the interview room.
The excuses ranged from “We want someone with more experience” to “You can’t possibly do nursing with a wheelchair.”
I had filled out an application for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The gentleman from human resources called me.  I told him that I was interested in spinal cord injuries because of my history with spina bifida. He immediately asked me to come and interview. 
I spent all day at RIC interviewing. I wasn’t even out of the airport parking garage when I got a phone call requesting a second interview.
I now work at RIC as a registered nurse. I use my wheelchair for long distances, but I do walk in my patients’ rooms.
My patients have been very accepting. A lot of my younger patients think it is cool that their nurse has a wheelchair just like them.      
I graduated in November 2004 — the proudest day of my life.  As I walked across the stage, I had tears in my eyes.  The biggest lesson that I have learned from this entire experience is to never let go of a dream.

Workable Wisdom

  • Be persistent.  Keep looking.  Don’t let failed interviews or applications keep you from what you know you can do.
  • Communicate with your superiors.  Your professors and administrators can be great advocates.  Get them on your side early on.
  • Keep an open mind.  If you narrow your job search by location or unit, you also narrow your chances of finding a job.

Excerpt from a chapter by Marianne Haugh, RN, BSN, in “Leave No Nurse Behind: Nurses working with disAbilities” by Donna Maheady, EdD, ARNP available at Proceeds from sales of the book help to maintain
About the Author

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Donna Maheady, Ed.D., ARNP is a pediatric nurse practitioner and nursing care consultant.  She is a strong advocate for inclusion of nurses with disabilities in nursing practice, and has taught nursing for more than 20 years and worked with nursing students with a wide range of disabilities.  Donna is the founder of, a nonprofit resource network for nurses and nursing students with disabilities. 

Click here to read more on Donna Maheady.


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