Nurses with (dis)abilities.

Some uplifting stories as nurses share their own stories of overcoming adversity or illness. 

I remember one of the most inspiring nurses I have ever worked with lost one of her arms after becoming entangled in powerlines whilst skydiving.

She worked in an emergency department….and I cannot even begin to imagine the challenges and frustrations she must have faced every single shift.

Yet she prevailed. She was an outstanding, uplifting and inspirational nurse who left a huge impression on me.
I know there are many nurses working amongst us who do so with some form of disability. Perhaps visual or hearing impaired, or a physical or mental disability, some are small and hidden, some more significant.

I asked some nurses with disabilities to try to give the rest of us some sort of idea of the positives and negatives that they experience at work…from technical issues with equipment etc, to environmental problems within the hospital setting, to interpersonal experiences.

This is what they had to say….

Nurse N:

Hey! I’d just like to share my experience working with an impairment. Ive had an essential tremor (for those unfamiliar, it’s just a benign hand tremor, mine is hereditary) since I was 14 and working with our hands is so important but it rarely gets in the way of my work on a super busy surgical ward. The team I work with are wonderful in that they don’t acknowledge it as a barrier but that simply I cannot do very intricate dressings or anything that requires an extremely steady hand.
The only negative experiences I’ve had is unwanted from patients and families to get tested for all sorts of diseases or since I am only 20 years old, it is often dismissed and mistaken for anxiety and stress by other members of staff.

Nurse E:

I don’t have physical illness as many but suffer from severe anxiety and depression specially when I myself have to be a patient within the hospital I work in. I am generally open about it when the topic comes up. When I was pregnant with my second child I had extreme hyperemesis and was in severe prenatal depression my then NUM managed to get me off the floor and allow me to continue the rest of the pregnancy on unpaid leave as I didn’t have enough annual leave rather than have the fear of losing my job…thank fully my coping mechanisms are somewhat stronger now.

Nurse S:

I work in General Practice which has been very accommodating of my Multiple Sclerosis and has allowed me to continue working despite my challenges and limitations – albeit part time these days.

I often lose balance, so I tend to wheel around my treatment room on a stool A LOT. My desk, cupboards and wall storage is set up in a way that I can reach most things without having to get up and down (fall down?). I have a height adjustable bed for doing dressings etc (which is of course, totally common in hospitals, but not always in GP land) and the other fixed height bed is higher than average which helps me stay balanced and working at the correct height when standing.

My managers have made it possible for me to manage the severe fatigue by allowing (they even suggested it) shorter shifts and as we are a very large multi storey medical centre, they have allocated me to the floor where most things are stored/used to reduce me having to go between levels too much. They don’t bat an eyelid when I have bad days and am using my walking stick or am reduced to using a 4 wheeled walker to get around – they still just treat me like me. Those days the other staff are also more likely to bring things to me if I ask, without question.

I struggle significantly with temperature regulation, so working up too much of a sweat is a real problem. Nurses, no matter the workplace are generally just BUSY so that’s something I just have to learn to manage as best I can. Everyone trips over the fan in my office but no one complains.. they are considerate like that.

Thankfully most of my colleagues have known me since well before I started experiencing symptoms. Some of the new/er staff need guidance in how to respond, consideration for any physical limitations (which can change day to day) but still see me as a qualified professional who is just a bit slower than the others!

I walk funny and bump into walls, beds, chairs (and thin air) but it is important to me that I continue to work as long as the disease progression allows. We have even forward planned strategies to allow me to continue working if I were to become permanently bound to crutches or a wheelchair and if the weakness in my hands were to worsen which could affect my ability to provide clinical care; this gives me a sense of security and worth that my abilities and my self are more important than any challenges I may or may not face in the future .

Nurse G:

I’ve just done my grad year with bilateral cochlear implants and an electronic stethoscope which plugged into my implants. It was definitely challenging at times with bad lines on the phone and noisy environments but everyone I worked with was incredibly supportive. Had lots of laughs and jokes along the way though.

Nurse S:

Whilst on holidays between my second and first years of uni, I suffered a retinal detachment in my left eye. I had surgery (vitrectomy x1) which held sufficiently for 10 days and unfortunately my retina re-detached. By this point the small tear was now a large supranasal tear from 12–5 o’clock and my IOP pressure skyrocketed after the second surgery (which happened to be just before semester went back). Second surgery was vitrectomy, heavy silicone oil tamponade and buckle placement. I studied hard through the semester and my IOP stayed at around 30–45 often causing huge migraines and I fainted a few times. They decided to remove the oil in Week 6 of semester. Complications post op meant they could still not get my pressure to reduce to below 35 so i was heavily medicated and continued study. I tried to seek support from the uni, but being so overwhelmed with it all, I did not want more paperwork.

An admission to ED with my IOP of 48 causing me to vomit and faint meant another washout and an iridectomy performed (hole drilled through the iris to reduce pressure). I was told that this surgery now put me at significant risk of developing sympathetic opthalmia due to 4 penetrating eye surgeries in such a short time. By this stage I was into second semester and the procedure was done at week 5. I was also told at this point my eye would go blind from the pressure and a shunt would not fix this.

I got a job as an AIN at this time as centrelink was unable to assist me. And I still work. I managed to pass both semesters with excellent grades. I have just been told I have about 2 more years until my eye needs to be removed but I am more or less blind on that side now.

Being the person that I am, I rarely asked for help and it was only this week I have discovered that I don’t have to go back to my specialist for 6 more months.

Last year has changed my life dramatically, but somehow, I ended up with a great job, a scholarship and a sense of survival. I had some great uni friends to help me through. Im now in third year and just hoping to get through all of this to get a grad program and just keep surviving!

Nurse H:

have one deaf ear like Jacqui Pollock. It is because I had a brain tumour 18 months ago and the surgeons took my cranial viii nerve out with the tumour.
I also have a vascular disease called Klippel Trenauny Syndrome. Only one in every 100 000 people is estimated to have it, I know about 3 in my state. Only my manager knows. I wear a class 3 compression stocking daily.

I work as an ED nurse and it can get hard, my leg swells a lot! But I persevere and proof to everyone I am stronger than I look.

Nurse B:

I have JME (juvenile myoclonic Epilepsy) you can google that. The first thing I want to say was I was told not to do nursing and so that made me want to do it even more. I get stubborn like that. Now, if anyone asks me about nursing who has Epilepsy I say don’t do it. Shift work really made mine worse. I had a tonic clonic seizure (one of millions) down three flights of stairs after sleep deprivation. Ended up in a neck brace, knee operation, steroid injection in my hip and my L2 and L3 pretty much have no disc between them. Surgery to risky as I have a congenitally narrowed spinal canal. Was off sick a lot, seizures once a month for many years. Employment is hard if you can’t do nights and it is not discrimination to refuse someone a job if they can’t fulfil the criteria of continuous shift worker. Met some crap nurses who like to make it known how I didn’t do nights. My response was “look, you can have JME, fork out $150 a month for medications and I will do your nights” never got a response to that. 🤔 Then you get pulled up by infection control for wearing a bracelet. It’s a medical alert. Three times last year I got the bare below the elbows lecture. Now I wouldn’t even know where my medical alert is, got out of the habit of wearing it. The extended time off when you have medication changes is rough…That’s what you end up saving all your leave for. Plus, having worked in neurology as relief, what I hear some nurses say about patients with Epilepsy makes my blood boil. Lots of undereducated nurses and doctors out there when it comes to Epilepsy.

Nurse F:

I am a nurse who has hearing loss and wears hearing aids. I am very conscious of my aids and wear my hair down so that I am not judged by either patients and other staff. I have to take my hearing aids out to do manual blood pressures, and when I do you might as well be talking to a wall. I rely a great deal on lip reading to assist me in knowing what I have heard is correct. For those that do know I have hearing loss, nothing has ever been mentioned.

Nurse L:

I have Rheumatoid Arthritis, I was diagnosed as a child and have been living with it for nearly 25 years. I had my hip replaced while I was a student and thank god I did! I couldn’t cope otherwise!! The biggest challenge I face is the fatigue, it’s hard to balance staying well with shift work, night duty and what not!
I have usually found my managers to be very accomodating in regards to my illness, rostering me less late/early shifts and shorter number of days on in a row, a bigger buffer between finishing night duty and going back on days.
Some days it sucks but it really gives me a better understanding of my patients struggles, so I suppose it’s a blessing in that way.

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