Latisha Anderson calls herself an “RN on wheels,” a healer who uses a wheelchair, a caretaker who rolls among the sick.
Skeptics told her she would never make it as a paraplegic nurse – turning patients, drawing blood and navigating the fast-moving stress of a hospital without a working set of legs.
But Anderson surprised them. She finished nursing school. She found work in psychiatric units, a veterans hospital and a senior center. She earned her graduate degree online and drove to Arizona by herself, collecting her diploma while seated in her manual TiLite.
She might not look like the nurses you’ve had. She carries a bullet-wound scar on her neck, a reminder of the stray-bullet injury that claimed her legs at age 17. She wears a gold tooth with the letter “L” stamped on it, standing for Latisha and for love. And though she’s won awards for her leadership and praise from her colleagues, she still faces doubts.
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“It’s ignorance that’s my obstacle now,” said Anderson, 36.
Monday morning, Anderson reports to work at Central Prison in Raleigh, her first day on the job. It wasn’t a smooth process.
The prison hired her sight unseen through a nursing agency. It sent her orientation materials by email, complete with a dress code and instructions for trimming her fingernails. But when she showed up March 2, expecting to perform the sort of psychiatric care she had already handled on other jobs, she got sent quickly home.
“They said, ‘We can’t use you,’ ” she said.
So Anderson filed a complaint with the governor’s office. It’s case No. 13874. She also called me and explained her life’s struggles. Then she sent out a stream of emails, explaining that she works hard and desperately needs income to avoid living in a shelter.
So the prison called her back: Start Monday.
“If I have to be Harriet Tubman, so be it,” Anderson said. “But disabled people do have a place in this world and I will keep running my mouth.”
Anderson split her youth between Raleigh and Wilson, often in rough neighborhoods. In 1996, two months before she was set to join the Marines, her cousin got into a fight with her boyfriend and fired a shot, hitting Anderson from about 20 feet away.
Fatefully, she got her treatment at East Carolina University, the same school she would later attend. “When I left there,” she recalled. “I couldn’t even transfer from my bed to my wheelchair.”
Years later, she finished a GED course at Wake Tech, riding the bus three times a day, often waiting in rain or snow. When the buses arrived without a wheelchair lift, she said, “I called Washington, D.C.”
Her next inspiration came all the way from Hawaii, via a newspaper article in the Honolulu Advertiser. There, she found out about Barry McKeown, a former surfer paralyzed in a car crash. From his chair, he managed a nursing career that required work in the intensive care unit, where he had once saved a patient’s life with CPR. Anderson wrote to him, and he told her, “All you need is a stand-up wheelchair.”
When Anderson finished at ECU with a 3.5 GPA, the nursing school magazine wrote a long feature about her success, quoting professors who had never before taught a student who used a wheelchair.
“She had to do the same things that other students did,” said Dr. Donna Roberson. “She had to take CPR, turn patients and hang intravenous fluids. With her upper-body strength, she did it better than, say, some ‘able-bodied’ persons.”
Anderson got the same treatment from Grand Canyon University, the online school that featured her in its magazine with several large photographs.
“I think the fact that she’s had a lot of negativity thrown at her has sort of done the opposite,” said Samantha Chacon, a nursing practicum specialist. “I would never have thought her disability would ever prevent her from doing an amazing job. She didn’t let it stop her.”
Still, she lost her job at a Phoenix senior health care center shortly after she started it – a setback she blamed on bias toward her disability. She got another job as a nursing supervisor in Sun City, Ariz. But she wanted to come home, and she drove back to Raleigh.
I met Anderson for lunch at the Kentucky Fried Chicken on New Bern Avenue, and she drove up in a white Buick sedan with Arizona plates. From my seat inside, in the middle of an ice storm, I watched her open the door and assemble her wheelchair from the front seat of her car, fitting the wheels onto the seat.
While I watched, another patron stepped up to her door and offered assistance, and she waved him off. She doesn’t need anybody’s help. Just a fair chance.
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