For the past five years, Andrea Dalzell has known that she was created to be a nurse, but because of her wheelchair use, she was never given the opportunity… until now!
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, as the daughter of two first-generation immigrants from Guyana, she was taught the values of hard work and determination. What her parents didn’t realize at the time was how much Andrea would come to rely on these values — and that they would eventually become her calling card.
It all began at age 5 when Andrea was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare inflammatory disorder in the spinal cord. The condition led her to full-time wheelchair use by age 12.
Having already endured 33 major surgeries, Andrea decided to dedicate her life to finding a cure for the pain she has gone through by pursuing a career in the medical field.
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Originally, she studied biology and neuroscience to become a doctor, but it didn’t feel quite right. “I was much more interested in working hands-on and caring for people, just like my nurses did throughout my life,” Andrea explained. “They took my mom’s place when she couldn’t be there, and they knew how to make me smile even when I felt like I was at rock bottom.”
So she decided to become the first nurse in a wheelchair that she had ever seen! She was accepted into CUNY College of Staten Island’s nursing program in 2016. But as a student, she started to encounter new concerns.
“There was this weight of never being allowed to be a student,” Andrea said. “How would I be able to keep my wheelchair clean, hold this, wipe this, turn a patient, and carry a basin full of water? All of these things are running through my mind.”
Still, Andrea knew better than to let any obstacles deter her. She soared through her classes with high marks, earning her degree, passing her boards, and officially becoming a registered nurse!
After graduation, Andrea attended 76 interviews for various acute care nursing positions. She was rejected by all of them.
She spent some time at a desk job and later transitioned to working as a school nurse. Then COVID-19 hit. When schools began closing, she found herself out of a job with an emboldened desire to use her skills at a time when they were needed most. Soon enough, the governor sent out an urgent call for nurses.
After applying to Montefiore Medical Center, Andrea finally got the call — she was hired!
She began blowing people’s perceptions out of the water the minute she arrived.
“As non-disabled people, we have this image in our mind that people with disabilities can do less, but with Andrea it was the complete opposite,” said Saskia Hosein, an RN at Montefiore and a friend of Andrea’s. “That first night I met her she had an 11-patient load, which is a lot. She was calm, focused, and was just getting it done.”
As if the overwhelming stress of working in a hospital in the midst of a pandemic wasn’t enough, Andrea also carried the pressure of proving herself.
To cope, she made sure to constantly set herself up for success. She kept a reacher in the storage unit to access high shelves and ensured that her computer workstation was always stocked with needles, tubing, and IV drips before every shift.
Soon, the hospital became her second home, and her fellow nurses became her team. In the most unprecedented time of their careers — and lives — they made sure to lighten each others’ loads where they could and didn’t hesitate to ask for the same.
Since then, Andrea’s incredible nursing achievements have gotten some of the praise they deserve. In September 2020, she was named co-winner of the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation’s Visionary Prize and was awarded $1 million.
Not only that, but the former Ms. Wheelchair New York was also named “New Mobility” magazine’s 2020 New Mobility Person of the Year. And this is only the beginning of her trailblazing career!
“Andrea is a role model and an advocate,” said Kym Eisner, the executive director of the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation. “She is willing to share her story and fight for equality, in both the workplace and the community at large.”
Her fight is about to increase its strength as she has decided to use her financial award to pursue her master’s degree in nursing. Her goal is to open a new foundation, The Seated Position, to provide career opportunities for those with physical disabilities.
“I told Andrea, don’t let anyone ever tell you there is something you can’t do,” her mother, Sharon Dalzell, said. “Just look at them straight in the face and say, ‘Watch me.'”
These are words that Andrea has clearly taken to heart — and generated into a passion for teaching others the same!
“I’ve proved the impossible in the midst of a pandemic,” Andrea wrote, “and it’s because of my wheelchair, my conviction to never give up, and my unrelenting mission to show that there is a place for everyone.”
Follow along with her game-changing journey on Instagram, and share her powerful story of perseverance with a friend.
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