Surviving Nursing School Despite Scoliosis

By NT Contributor on Tue, May 13, 2014

disabled nursesFor most students, nursing school is already hard. What if you have a disability or illness? It becomes much harder. Yet as this contributor to the book “Nursing Students with Disabilities Change the Course” shows, it’s difficult but not impossible. Here’s the story:

At about the age of 15, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. The doctors encouraged me to do exercises and they wanted to put me in traction. For a few years, the exercises seemed to be enough to keep my spine from getting any worse. But when I was enrolled for my Bachelor’s degree in a nursing school, my problems really started.

The scoliosis progressed and the pain started while I was in my nursing program. It was like being at a freak show. Thankfully, an orthopedic surgeon was doing an outreach program at the university. I saw the worst cases of the disease and the most advanced conditions.

I was then seen for a complete work-up and surgery was scheduled for my winter break. I planned to have the surgery, finish the spring semester, and graduate with my class.

I met with the Dean and let her know that I was planning the surgery. I asked her if she had any suggestions for me. She said, “No big deal! No problem, you’ll do fine!” I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be a breeze.

Post-Op Problems

I had the surgery and they inserted a rod in my back. My mother came to pick me up on a Friday and drove me home. I recuperated from Friday night to Saturday. And then on Sunday, she drove me back to college. I was in a full body cast! I lived alone in an apartment off campus, about a mile away.

Walking was good for me and walking was what I did. Driving a car was out of the question. I did have problems with pain, bathing and sitting.

The professors helped out by letting me sit in the back of the class so I wouldn’t have to turn my head. My neighbor was also a nursing student who had a car. When we had classes together, she would take me home.

Adjusting to the Circumstances

Since I knew that I was going to have the surgery, I planned my course work accordingly. I planned to take community health nursing in my last semester. Community health nurses usually don’t wear uniforms. I couldn’t get into a hospital uniform because of the body cast.

The course required that students drive to patient’s homes so I took the bus to visit with my patients. Patients would say to me, “What happened to you? Shouldn’t you be the patient?”

I would recommend that a nursing student with a disability be set up with counseling sessions. I really didn’t come to terms with any of my emotional healing. It was a major loss, not only of time being a young person, a senior in college, but my physical body.

Starting All Over Again

I graduated and went back home to recuperate. I got the cast off in September and got a job as a nurse in intensive care. I had that job for about two months and then the rod in my back broke and I had to have surgery all over again.

I can remember the day that they got me out of bed. My girlfriend was there. I was so weak, like a rag doll. I had no strength in my legs and I was incontinent, embarrassed to think that my best friend was wiping my butt.

It was a horrible year. I was in a body cast and couldn’t get a job. I had to collect disability. I did a lot of self-reflection and tried to use the time as an opportunity for personal growth.

I started applying for jobs while I was in the body cast. They said, “Come back after you’re out of your body cast.” “Who wants a nurse with a bad back?”

Finally, one hospital did hire me with the condition that I would start work after I got the body cast off.

Coping with Challenges

When I look back, I would have done it all over again. I’m still working on things like anger and sadness. I have been involved with the Scoliosis Association, attend meetings and try to be supportive to others.

It would have been helpful to have accommodations from the nursing program. Somebody could have taped the classes and “a buddy” would have been a great help.

My spine is fused, so it’s like my spine is in a cast. I do have occasional problems with arthritic pain that is related to stress and repetitive strain from computer work. When I have to do anything physical, I try to get two or three people to help me so I don’t hurt my back.

There is a lot of pain that goes along with nursing school than the physical work of being a registered nurse. I knew that I had a great mind, but also knew that I didn’t have a great body. So I took the opportunity to get my masters in nursing. I now work as a nurse practitioner. I’m very mobile.

So far, so good!

To read more inspiring stories, grab a copy of the book “Nursing Students with Disabilities Change the Course,” as compiled by Donna Carol Maheady, EdD, ARNP from Proceeds from the sales of the book will help support, a nonprofit network for nurses with disabilities.


Terri Mason 5 months ago
I am currently in nursing school and work as a PCA at a hospital. I have 4 children and a great husband but am currently severely depressed because I am in constant pain even being on every medication possible. Mayfield spine wants me to have surgery but I am scared and don't want to drop out of nursing school. They told me to collect disability... I feel so depressed and spend all of my time crying and in pain, I still don't know what to do. Thanks for sharing this story. 10 months ago
This is an interesting story. Physically challenged students are driven with more passion and dedication in their careers. I hope everyone would give them an opportunity through education.

Anonymous 4 years ago
I am looking for CEU's on line anD fell into this article anD blog's, they are all helpful I have a scoliosis also anD haD a Laminectomy L4-5 20 ish yrs ago but scar tissue formeD that causeD just as much if not more pain, I have generative Disk Disease anD was tolD at the age of 33 I haD the back of an 80 near olD. I have Fibromyalgia. 3 knee surgeries My shouler surgery that was real tuff recovery but great now an I am still working. I use to work aDult ICU now I work NICU an love it but the leg pain numbness an bottom of my feet is getting tuff I am afraiD to have another back surgery to have the roD placeD I have so many other pain issues. I guess I can still walk so I will put it off Goo Luck To All!!!

Anonymous 4 years ago

My prayers have been answered, for so long i have felt alone and maybe started to believe other people that thought I was crazy going into nursing with my scoliosis. Unlike you i was born with scoliosis that is from from my main condition VATER syndrome and have dealt with it all my life with infused rods as well. It does take toll not having any counseling while in nursing school and at my university the some Deans and some faculty frowned upon my condition as if it was a burden to them as they have deal with my disability and accommodations as I have lifting restrictions. It's good to know I am not alone and there is hope in finishing my degree as a RN.

Anonymous 5 years ago

Thanks for sharing your story. I am not sure if things are different now in our schools of nursing with providing accommodation for students with disability. However, all educational institutions are legally obligated to provide accommodation for their students with disability in compliance with Section 504 of Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Anonymous 5 years ago

An interesting story. I worked as a ward sister in Orthopaedics, with a superb spinal surgeon. We did the rods for scoliosis, but also lumbar and cervical osteotomies, which many surgeons did not attempt. Every Monday, there were lectures for Physiotherapists and junior doctors from around the country, and I frequently attended. One of the questions to my Consultant was: "What happens when the rod breaks?" He looked totally non-nonplussed - then angry. "My rods don't break - have never broken. It is a problem I have never encountered." As I nursed in Scotland and his patients came from as far away as the Arab Emirates, I can testify that never to my knowledge did he insert a rod that broke. Patients with scoliosis went on to live normal lives after six months to a year.

Anonymous 5 years ago

Nursing schools and other schools do have an obligation to help a disabled person attend school. When they don't, a lawyer should be contacted. I don't know why some people with disabilities fail to do that.

Anonymous 5 years ago

Thank you for sharing your experience of scoliosis, surgery, and the emotional as well as physical experience. I'm 49 years old and had to have surgery 4 years after becoming a nurse. I lived with scoliosis since I can remember, which was since about age 15 years old. I became a RN and gained weight and then had a terrible fall that caused me to fracture my knee cap as well as my lower back. I believe the weight and the physical results of my fall caused my sever scoliosis to result in painful stenosis and numbness of my legs which resulted in 3 more falls due to leg numbness. I do not hear much from nurses who had scoliosis and surgery who continued on in nursing. It is encouraging to hear.I often wonder now since my surgery, about 2 months now, how i will be able to carry on as a RN. I'm an older nurse and look forward to hearing from other nurses with similar stories as they relate to scoliosis and maintaining their lives actively in the field of nursing. Thank you for sharing and God Bless You..........