An Exceptional Resource for Would-Be Nurses with Disabilities

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Stephanie Mejia always wanted to be a nurse. But when she was 11, she had a mini-stroke caused by a brain tumor, which led to brain surgery.

Stephanie Mejia
Stephanie Mejia

At 16, she had another mini-stroke and another surgery. The next year, the tumor returned and was declared inoperable. So Mejia had radiation therapy.

All of this treatment left Mejia with weakness on the left side of her body, including a limp, and she can’t move the fingers on her left hand.

But she still wanted to become a nurse.

“Everyone was telling me I was crazy. ‘Don’t do it. It’ll be impossible,’” said Meija, who is now 23 years old.

So Mejia did what anyone would: She Googled it. Specifically, she Googled “nurse with one hand.”

“And would you believe,” Mejia said, “that two amazing nurses showed up in my search?”

Both of the nurses Mejia discovered online are members of an advocacy organization called ExceptionalNurse.com, founded by Dr. Donna Maheady, associate graduate faculty at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Maheady started the organization after writing her dissertation on nurses with disabilities, a subject she tackled because her own daughter was born with severe disabilities.

Dr. Donna Maheady, associate graduate faculty at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton
Dr. Donna Maheady, associate graduate faculty at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton

“While I was doing this work [on my dissertation], it quickly became clear to me that nursing students with disabilities were out there alone,” Maheady said.

Starting with those nurses she interviewed for her dissertation, Maheady built up a network of nurses with a wide range of disabilities. When she heard about students with similar disabilities, she’d connect them so that they could learn from each other. She picked a name for her effort, set up a website — ExceptionalNurse.com — and, in 2001, became an official nonprofit.

The organization now has 500 paying members, more than 1,000 on its mailing list, more than 700 in its Facebook group, and almost 5,500 in its LinkedIn group. ExceptionalNurse.com works with nurses with all kinds of disabilities, including hearing and vision loss, epilepsy, limb differences, autism, arthritis, HIV, and multiple sclerosis.

ExceptionalNurse.com is 100 percent volunteer-run, and though it offers both scholarships and online resources, its most important mission is still connecting nurses with disabilities to those who need to know that a disability is not necessarily a disqualification from working in the field.

“I don’t really see the disability as being the deal breaker,” said Maheady. “I’m not being flip, but I don’t think every person out there without a disability should be a nurse. I’m not waving a flag saying, ‘Come one, come all. You can be a nurse.’ This is tough. You have to love it.”

For college and university administrators and instructors, however, accommodating disabled students may seem daunting.

When Sarah Alag faced this issue, she knew she needed help. So Alag, the disability coordinator at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill., sent out a query on a disability listserv, asking for advice.

“And I’m not kidding, within 20 minutes, I probably had 30 emails, and 90 percent of them referred me to ExceptionalNurse.com,” Alag said. “They are very well-respected.”

Mejia also ran into problems with accommodation at the private nursing college she attended in New York City.

When she first started clinical classes, everything seemed fine, and her instructor seemed pleased with her work. But then she was called into meetings. She was told that she was not capable of working with patients. Her instructors asked to videotape Mejia to prove to her that she could not do it.

“It got nasty,” Mejia said.

Mejia called Maheady for help, and Maheady reached out to an ExceptionalNurse.com board member named Susan Fleming, who was born with one hand and has been a nurse for more than 30 years. Fleming, who is now an assistant professor at Washington State University’s College of Nursing, contacted Mejia’s instructors with suggestions for how to accommodate her without changing the school’s standards.

Nurse Susan Fleming, who was born with one hand, is now an assistant professor at Washington State University College of Nursing. Here, she administers healthcare during a mission trip to South America.
Nurse Susan Fleming, who was born with one hand, is now an assistant professor at Washington State University College of Nursing. Here, she administers healthcare during a mission trip to South America.

Mejia credits Fleming’s call with allowing her to continue her education and pursue her dream.

Fleming made a similar call about three years ago to Dr. James Pace, associate dean of undergraduate programs at New York University’s College of Nursing.

At that time, the college had just enrolled a student with one hand.

“This really threw us into a state of anxiety,” Pace said. “What do we do? How do we accomplish this?”

The conversation with Fleming and watching some videos that she had posted online of herself — a one-handed nurse — working, showed Pace that it was possible. The next step was convincing the faculty, and that was not always easy.

“I think that for any change to happen, you have to have some confrontation with the need to change,” Pace said. “…It’s a really paradigmatic shift from ‘can’t’ to ‘how can we?’ And I’m so proud of how we’ve made that shift.”

NYU has now graduated three nursing students with some type of limb disability and currently has a hearing-impaired student enrolled.

Mejia also used Fleming’s videos. With that help and direct email contact with both Fleming and another one-handed nurse, Mejia learned ways to accommodate her own disability: skills like how to put on sterile gloves one-handed, a trick she learned with practice and a stopwatch to make sure she was fast enough; or specific tips like choosing nitrile rather than latex gloves, since they are easier to slip into.

“Every time I wanted to give up, I’d email them and they’d say, ‘No, no, here’s what you do,’” Mejia said.

Mejia didn’t give up. She graduated in May 2014 and started her first hospital job Dec. 1.

In that job Mejia believes that as a disabled nurse she brings a skill an able-bodied nurse may not.

“We know how the patients feel when they struggle with limitations,” she said. “We know how it feels to lose what you were before. Even for the patients, I think, it’s encouraging to see.”

Maheady agrees.

“One of the gifts that many [disabled nurses] bring is that they have experience on the other side of the bed,” she said. “And you can’t teach that.”●

Nina Rao is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. To learn more, visit ExceptionalNurse.com.