Our Spotlight series highlights a new nurse from the SHIFT audience each month. We ask the same set of questions each time, but of course we get all kinds of answers. The individual stories and surprise twists in these conversations make us laugh and cry — and fill us with pride about nursing. Over time, we hope to discover both what makes each of us unique and what ties us all together as nurses.
For Ryann M., a postpartum nurse from Virginia, her second home as a child was the emergency room. Born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a condition that weakens the body’s connective tissue, Ryann is now mostly reliant on her wheelchair — even while on shift. Which has often made her work, and even finding new work, more difficult. In her conversation with us, she shares why more education and advocacy about nurses and patients with disabilities would only be beneficial for the field of nursing.
Ryann now dons many hats, from postpartum and mother-baby care nurse to Ms. Wheelchair Virginia to disability advocate in her community to athlete and Instagram influencer. You’ll be just as captivated as we are by her! Read on for how she plans to make even more of a difference in nursing and for people with disabilities.
Why did you decide to go into nursing?
I was born with a condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. It is a connective tissue disorder and is fairly rare. Basically, it causes all of my collagen to be extra stretchy. And as I’ve gotten older, it has gone from just affecting my joints and flexibility to other factors, including poor wound healing. I even had my gall bladder removed because it was stretched out. It literally affects all of the “glue” that holds me together.
I had no idea when I was born. I was just a really flexible kid. I had a trick shoulder that I could dislocate like 100 times a day. It didn’t hurt; it was just super stretchy. I was tripping and falling and “rolling” my ankles, or so we thought. I didn’t know they were actually dislocating. I’m also just a clumsy person that doesn’t pay attention to her surroundings. So, with these two things, I ended up living in the emergency room. At the same time, growing up, I had an affinity for the arts — both dance and theatre. But as I started to age, and when I was diagnosed at 16, I felt like I was in the ER every other week. We were there one day, and my mom made a joke that if I was going to be in the ER so much, why wouldn’t I get paid to push a stretcher or something? Totally as a joke, but as soon as somebody tells me I can’t do something, I want to do it.
I couldn’t think of anything scarier than working in health care and medicine. It was totally out of left field. At that time, they were advertising for an emergency medical technician (EMT) class in my hometown, and I signed up and completely fell in love. I worked as an EMT all the way through high school and college, and eventually through nursing school. I went to college, and the wait list for nursing was very long, so I studied sex, like everyone does. I got a degree in human sexuality and worked for Planned Parenthood for a minute. But I missed working with patients, so I immediately went back to nursing school. I was working as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) during the night and going to nursing school during the day.
I started in nursing specifically because I’m the career patient. I know what it feels like to have a bunch of people in white coats peering over you and speaking a language that sounds like Greek, and not really treating you as a human being. And so I thought, “I can do this. I can make a difference.” I want to make sure that none of my patients ever felt like I did. I thought the ER was the best place for me to do that. I worked there for the first five years.
As of last April, I started working bedside as a postpartum mother-baby nurse. I had to take two years away from the bedside because I became reliant on my wheelchair. Today, I am 80/20 reliant on my wheelchair and use it full time out of my home. At work specifically, I use it almost everywhere. I get out to reach for high things, and I can walk short distances in the room. But now when I walk, my hips, knees and ankles are very unstable. So I took a job as a case manager for a few years. Hated it — not because I hated case management, but because I was in the hospital doing acute care and seeing patients, but I wasn’t able to help out on the floor. And this was right when COVID-19 hit. COVID-19 is what spurred me to get back to the bedside, and I applied and applied, and lucky no. 18 was the [organization] that hired me.
Tell us about a time when it was really hard to be a nurse or a time that made you question being a nurse.
I would say COVID-19, for sure — 112 percent. It was hard for me because I was not working at the bedside and was fully reliant on a wheelchair. When my hospital at the time was COVID-19 surging, they were desperately calling for nurses, but at that hospital, I was not cleared to work bedside, and no one would hire me to help out. I got to go on the floor as a CNA and work, and that’s how I proved that I am capable of continuing my nursing career at the bedside.
That was hard. And also just not getting called back for nursing applications and jobs during that time in my career because of my disability. With my title as reigning Ms. Wheelchair of Virginia, I’m very Googleable. So, all of a sudden, these jobs that I was qualified for — or really overqualified for — that in the past I would have had no trouble getting, because of that fact that it was so easy to look me up, I was not getting called back for these jobs, and it was very disheartening. And I started thinking about if I would have to choose another career. That was about the same time that most of us in this career path weren’t getting the PPE that we needed and weren’t seeing our patients being treated the way we were used to them being treated. We weren’t even being treated the way we should be treated. I joke that I’ve never seen so many nurses become real estate agents in my entire career. It’s definitely improved a lot, though.
At the time, my office as a case manager was on the COVID-19 unit. Being so up close and personal with the patients and how desperately they needed nurses, I had to dig in and remember why I am here. I have a goal and calling and reason that I work in this field. And it’s because of my past and my background and what I’ve been through. There’s no better time like the present to show up when other people didn’t.
But I was suddenly not getting called back because of my disability. There are not many wheelchair nurses, but we do exist. A lot of the time with disabled nurses, you’ll find that they were disabled during their career. It’s rare to find people who were disabled to begin with and then went into nursing, but they are becoming way more common. Because I can stand and can get out of my chair if I need to, it’s easier for me to skate by than a lot of the other nurses in wheelchairs I’ve spoken with. There is red tape to hire a nurse in a wheelchair, especially one who is paralyzed. But I do know many nurses who have had full careers in their wheelchairs. It just comes down to finding someone willing to take a chance on you. It’s not as much about us not being able to do the work, because I haven’t found one who can’t.
It’s twofold: one, because we are seen as a liability or as someone who can be more easily injured than another nurse. And two, because there is a lack of education about disability as a whole and how we function. And the fact that if you pull up any job listing, it’s going to have that we must walk a certain amount of feet and carry a certain amount of pounds. There is an awesome program that I’m part of called National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities (NOND). We work together fighting these stigmas and speaking with nursing school admission directors.
The only reason I got hired was because my interview was a Zoom interview. And though I was seated in my wheelchair, you couldn’t see it. And it wasn’t until I got the job offer that I realized they didn’t know that I’m in a wheelchair! So I called them, and they didn’t see an issue with it. I specifically wanted to get a job with postpartum and mother-baby because I knew the lifting requirements would be less. If there is a way for me to start to get my foot in the door to get back at the bedside, this is a good chance. And they said you’re the perfect height to catch for our labor and delivery nurses. I had to learn how to push a bassinet down the hallway in my wheelchair, but I was able to do so. So that’s why I’m constantly telling my story as much as possible about what I’ve gone through and just the educational issues that surround disabilities and the health care world.
Something that I found interesting is how inaccessible hospitals tend to be for their employees. They are very accessible for patients, obviously, but half of our medical room doors are insanely heavy, and most nursing stations are not wheelchair accessible. Some of the hospital rooms are so small, it’s hard to fit a chair in there. These are all issues that have to be looked at, but they are also issues, as nurses, that we don’t know until we get on a unit.
I also learned about advocacy through winning Ms. Wheelchair Virginia. I actually won the Lifetime Achievement Award for the amount of advocacy work I’ve done in my reign. Just seeing people’s reaction to you — a girl in a wheelchair with a crown, talking publicly about her issues, and just seeing how much people latched onto that. They really liked what I had to say, and it encouraged me to continue on my disability advocacy journey.
Who inspires you?
My nursing career inspiration is my friend Andrea, who is another nurse in a wheelchair. She is an ally and mentor. We were friends before I became reliant on a wheelchair. We are both working to reach out and speak to more health care organizations and medical students.
Also, my partner, Ryen Reed, who is also disabled. She is a competitor in the Paralympics in handcycling. Watching her thrive despite all she goes through with cerebral palsy is inspiring. She has to fight stigmas, and she helps me on the bad days. It’s so great to have strong, disabled career women in my life.
Describe your SHIFT BFF. Why are they your best friend on the job?
Since I just started this job, I would say my best friend on the unit is Sandy, who is a foster mom with almost-two-year-old twins, and one of them has cerebral palsy. And getting to see me in that role was completely eye-opening for her.
And she’s told me that “seeing you and seeing what you’re capable of has made me have a completely different outlook on what my child’s future is going to be like.” It’s been incredible to learn more about postpartum and mother-baby nursing through her, because she’s a much more experienced nurse. But I also have this advocacy bit and show her that her child is capable of so much more.
Tell us something about your specialty in nursing that other nurses may not know.
We all know how resilient women are, but it’s not until you sit there every day and take care of postpartum moms who have just gone through the most intense experience of their lives.
And seeing them just bounce back just like that and take care of their kid. That is my favorite part. That and how incredibly resilient our bodies are as women. And how quickly we do bounce back from trauma and blood loss, and walk out three days later, baby in tow.
Also, babies bounce — they do not break. I used to want to be a midwife in nursing school, so it wasn’t out of left field for me to try this specialty. But I’ve never been around four- or five-pound babies in my life. So when I first started, I was like, “I don’t know how to touch that.” Now I realize how often I sling around these tiny, healthy infants. It’s completely eye-opening for me. Now to be on this side of nursing, when most of the time it’s the best day of someone’s life, is really cool and just helpful for my sanity.
Describe your community’s health. What is your hope for your community’s health in the future?
I’ve gotten to be in a really cool position, because I started this advocacy journey where I grew up, which is a tiny, very rural area in southwestern Virginia. I can count the number of disabled people on two hands, because I know them and we’re on the same basketball team.
It has been so cool to see my community’s response to hearing my story and getting that education and realizing ableism is a huge thing in our community.
My partner and I show up in the public eye in our wheelchairs, constantly having to speak with organizers of events because we can’t get to the places they’ve organized. The coolest part is the feedback that I get back from the community from the little bit of education they get. It’s opened their eyes to this entire population of humans that we aren’t thinking about. Which is insane, because we are 15 percent of the population.
Just seeing little things, like curb cuts getting installed and broken ones being fixed. And the Paralympics being broadcast for the first time, and Paralympians getting the same amount for their medals as Olympic athletes. We are absolutely going in the right direction. I just know that if me sharing my story in my town on a small scale can make the amount of impact it has since 2017, what does that mean for the world on a bigger scale? Because the more I put my story out there, the more hunger I see from the general community to fix things.
What is your vision for the future of nursing?
I definitely think [disability education] needs to start before nursing school — at the child age. We still have everyone getting lumped together in special needs, whether intellectually affected or not, just because they are a wheelchair user. And that then rolls over into nursing schools and hospitals. I would love to see nursing become more inclusive, and I know it’s not going to happen overnight. I don’t want people to be so incredibly shocked that I am their nurse. No one has had negative pushback, but I mean, every once in a while, I get asked if I need to be pushed down the hallways. But whatever. Nursing will be for the better if we are more inclusive and include more people from all walks of life, including disabilities. Because we are the people that know health care systems like the back of our hand, because we are the ones who grew up in hospitals.
Those of us who are not so incredibly sickened by the health care field by the time we’re adults — and want to work to make it better — are generally the ones who may be able to. It’s about just seeing little changes, like making wheelchair accessible nursing stations. Nothing crazy, just that they’re big enough that a wheelchair can fit! And in hospital rooms as well. Half the time, if I have a powerchair-using patient, their chair can’t fit into their own room. So this is not only going to benefit the nurses, I assure you.
How can nurses be better to each other?
In general, especially during COVID-19, it’s so hard to remember just how high stress our jobs are right now. We are in the forefront of public spotlight, and patients are more anxious and scared with the unknown. So just giving each other grace more than we ever have before. It’s not about you walking in, it’s about the patients. To be there for each other. Nursing is a family, and that’s my favorite part of this career. That’s easy to forget when you’re on night four of five and burnt out and tired. But other nurses are your support to keep going. The best thing we can do is support each other.
Describe one of your best shifts ever.
My best shift ever was with a patient who came into the ER when I was an ER case manager a few years ago. My hospital was a hub, so we took care of people from very rural areas. And in his words, he came from “backwoods, middle-of-nowhere West Virginia.” He was a wheelchair user with a spinal cord injury, but his chair had been damaged, so he was using a loaner chair. At that point, he had not heard back from the factory for months [about a new one].
He came in because he was septic and had a fever. Sure enough, he was infected and had sacral ulcers, because when I transferred him to his bed from his chair, the bottom of his chair was rotted out. And there was just a piece of plywood and several towels folded on top of it.
Because of where he lives and his financial circumstances, and just because he didn’t know who to call, he didn’t have any way to fix the situation. He’s trying to stay off it as much as he can, but he’s a single dad and had to work. He worked for a landscaping business where he seeded a lot of the time. And I’ve never worked so hard on a case in my life. I called around and asked for favors and used all of my case management knowledge to get him fitted with a new chair. But it was so cool, because it was the first time that I had ever taken care of a wheelchair user as a nurse in a wheelchair. And seeing his face as I rolled in the room, he said, “This is the coolest day ever. You know what my life is like. You know what I’m going through. And you’re telling me that you’re going to save the day?” So, getting to get him a new chair was just amazing, and he still keeps in touch.
Learn more about Ryann:
She’s on Instagram @chronically_ry
Here’s her LinkedIn
Learn more about: National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities
These links are not endorsed by SHIFT and the views expressed within are their own.