Like Missing an Arm Should Stop Me Being a Nurse!

Like Missing an Arm Should Stop Me Being a Nurse!
by Liz Perkins ABD, RNMH


When I left high school I was like so many others – unsure of what I really wanted to be when I grew up. All through my school years I had never felt any different from my peers. But I was different - I was a congenital amputee – I had no right arm save about six inches from the shoulder down. My nick-name was the one-armed bandit – not very original, but having grown up and gone through school with the same group of friends my disability really was a non-issue. Furthermore, prosthetic arms were merely an annoyance to me, I much preferred having the use of my “little arm” as I always referred to it. So anyway – I was one of those kids who really enjoyed school – I was a bright student and did well in sports too. I played for my school teams in hockey, rounders (similar to softball), netball (like basketball), and my strong left arm meant that I was pretty good at all throwing events in athletics!

As I had always done very well at school when I hit the job market I was totally unprepared for the limited opportunities that I had. It was then that the stigma of having a disability really struck me for the first time. Attending interviews for predominantly clerical jobs that I was more than qualified for, I started to notice how people were visibly shocked to notice my arm was missing, how uncomfortable it made them, and then how they would fixate on that rather than me. At my local job centre I was advised that it would be an advantage for me to be registered disabled – as employers were required to hit a certain quota of employees who were RD. As it happened, being RD didn’t lead to any upswing in job offers either. I finally decided to go on a Youth Training Scheme, and while doing that my father decided that he was going to convert a property he had into a small nursing home.

At last I had found my calling! I really enjoyed being a nursing assistant there. I loved working with older adults and took great pride in my work. At the end of each of my shifts I felt that I had accomplished something worthwhile – and that my constant cheerfulness was truly appreciated! I worked alongside some super nurses, and eventually I had the audacious idea that perhaps I should apply to do my Registered General Nurse training! So naively I went along to my interview with the Director of Nurse Education at the local School of Nursing. It is obvious to me now that my “interview” was nothing of the sort. The DNE voiced his concern about accepting me into the RGN training program, only to find sometime down the line there would be a clinical procedure that I was unable to do. His concern was that it would make it seem like he’d made a bad decision and that it would be a waste of the money invested into my training. He then sent me to the Occupational Health Nurse – who immediately asserted he could see problems straight away – how could I possibly administer CPR? I went home, and couldn’t quite believe how curtly I had been treated. I was not a potential student – I was not even a person, I was in fact a potential problem! It was one of the most demoralizing experiences that I ever had.

A few weeks later the polite “thanks but no thanks” letter arrived. I’ve always been amazed at how what we think of as opportunities lost often pave the way for more suitable opportunities. For it was just after the “thanks but no thanks” letter arrived that I saw an advertisement in the local newspaper. It was seeking applicants for the School of Nursing, at Lea Castle Hospital in Kidderminster, England. It was for student nurses to undergo RNMH training. RNMH – Registered Nurse Mental Handicap, has been a branch of nursing in the UK for decades (now known as Registered Nurse Learning Disabilities). It is a nurse trained specifically for the nursing care of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It piqued my interest – I’m not sure why – quite frankly I had no previous knowledge or acquaintance with anyone with IDD, but for some reason I decided to give it a shot.

When I went for my initial interview with the then Senior Tutor, Sue Carmichael, I was immediately struck by how differently I was being treated and perceived. Granted, I had written a detailed letter outlining my abilities as a nursing assistant, my desire to be a Registered Nurse, and that if given the chance to prove myself – I would not let the School down.

Something quite magical happened. Sue Carmichael said to me that “a major role of an RNMH is to help those with disabilities to maximize their abilities, and we’d hardly be practicing what we preach if we did not give you this opportunity”. After my previous interview, I couldn’t have been more shocked by the difference in attitude! Sue went on to say that the school was going to employ me as a nursing assistant for two weeks on one of their most nurse-intensive units – Maple. Persons who lived on Maple had multiple disabilities with severe/profound intellectual disabilities.

My first day there, I met with the Ward Sister and Charge Nurse who were to assess my on-the-job performance. Far from feeling nervous about the situation, I actually relished the challenge. The staff could not have been more welcoming. I was also interviewed and observed by the senior OT and PT staff. I was put through my paces – I was assessed on how I would draw up an injection, open drug bottles, my lifting technique, how I’d snap open a glass vial, basically any procedure they could think of that an RNMH was required to do. What people with two hands couldn’t always fathom was that there is always an alternative one-handed method to accomplish the same thing. I had never had a right hand, and throughout my life had found my own way of doing things. I have to thank my mother for instilling a fierce sense of independence in me. When I was first born – a kindly nurse had said to her “Don’t do too much for her, let her find her own way to do things and she’ll be fine”. My mother remembered that, and for that I am thankful. At the end of the first week, the Charge Nurse told me – “Liz you have already proved yourself – we’ve already recommended that you be accepted for training – just enjoy the second week!”. You can’t imagine the pride I felt 3 years later when I was a 3rd year student nurse, on placement back on Maple. By the way – I also got my CPR certification during my first six weeks of basic training in the program! So much for that being “a problem”!

It wasn’t all plain sailing – each new placement meant a fresh group of colleagues – some of whom obviously had reservations about my abilities. However, any reservations were soon dissipated, and eventually it got to the point that at some new placements my reputation (or notoriety) preceded me! One of the most affirming moments for me, was during my general nursing placement – I was assigned to a male medical ward at Kidderminster General Hospital. After I had been on placement there for a few weeks, the Ward Sister asked if I had ever considered RGN training, because I would be a great RGN too!

I loved my time at Lea Castle – and I still remember the thrill of becoming Staff Nurse Perkins. I have very fond memories of my time there. I find the field of intellectual/developmental disabilities to be fascinating and very rewarding. I felt an immediate affinity to the people I nursed.

It’s been over twenty years now since I first stepped into the School of Nursing at Lea Castle. My career has alternated between nursing the general aging population and persons with IDD. Now that I am doctoral candidate working on my dissertation for a PhD in Aging Studies, it was obvious that my research interests would focus on aging with IDD. Like I mentioned before – I think barriers can sometimes lead to greater opportunities. It has been a privilege to be a nurse with a disability who serves people with disabilities and older adults. I know exactly what it is like to be stigmatized, marginalized, and to have lowered expectations because I’m a little different. However, I’m really not sure that I would be the same person with the same motivations and understanding had I been born with two arms.

And remember what I said about having no family acquaintance with IDD? A few years after I qualified as an RNMH, my sister subsequently gave birth to her youngest – Joe – a boy with autism. My research with family caregivers is benefited by both my professional and now personal experiences of having a member of my own family who has IDD.

If my story inspires just one person to “go for it” then it would have served its purpose well. All you need is self-belief, perseverance, optimism, oh and having a good sense of humor is helpful too!! And sometimes you need that one special person who has the courage and insight to remove the barriers that others are quick to place before you. For me that person was Sue Carmichael, and I will be forever indebted to her for giving me that chance!

Read more about Liz Perkins experiences in trying to become a nurse. Sue Carmichael, was a Senior Tutor at the Lea Castle School of Nursing, and was the person responsible for giving Ms. Perkins the opportunity to train.

Elizabeth Perkins, PhD, RNMH
President of the Gerontology Division - American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
Co-convener of the Formal Interest Group on Developmental Disabilities for the Gerontological Society of America

Health Coordinator
Florida Center for Inclusive Communities

University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities
University of South Florida
13301 Bruce B. Downs Blvd, MHC 2113A
Tampa, FL, 33612-3807

Tel :- (813) 974-7076
Fax:- (813) 974-6115