Alabama nurse practioner in wheelchair overcomes obstacles


DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — Perhaps patients like her because she is "on their level."

Perhaps they feel comfortable with her because of her caring but right-to-the-point health assessments.

Whatever the reason, patients and staff members feel lucky to have Cherie Stanford at the Community Free Clinic of Decatur-Morgan County. This certified nurse practitioner does not let her wheelchair or anything else come between her and what she wants to accomplish in life.

In fact, those watching might think that through her wheelchair, she is plugged into a power source that gives her energy to go-go-go.

By day, the Hulaco resident helps kindergarten through eighth-grade students as the nurse at Ryan School in southeastern Morgan County.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, she sees patients at the Community Free Clinic in her part-time job as a nurse practitioner. When she has holidays from her school job, she often leads daytime seminars for diabetic patients at the clinic.

And during her free time, nights and weekends, she can be found helping the Tri-County Volunteer Fire Department as a first responder, as well as its secretary. She has qualified to drive a rescue truck and a pumper during her eight years with the department.

Stanford, 58, who was born with a hip problem, has used a wheelchair to get around for about 25 years. Something went wrong during a 1974 surgery to replace a hip, and she woke up paralyzed from the right knee down.

She didn't take time off for a pity party.

"I walked with crutches and a brace until 1985, and then I realized I could do more in a wheelchair," she said.

She can get up and walk if she needs to, and she can drive herself. She has a lift in her van so she can load her wheelchair, get in and go.

"The problem with my getting up and walking is when I forget to tell a patient I'm going to stand up, and when I surprise them, their heart rate goes up," Stanford said.

Fortunately, the nurse practitioner is handy with a stethoscope.

Patients respond well to her personable way of asking questions, sorting out medical needs and dispensing advice, along with prescriptions.

"I have to tell you to try to quit smoking, or I wouldn't be doing my job," she tells one middle-aged patient while reviewing medicines taken and possible additions, along with symptoms.

"Let's try to deal with the things that are most pressing for your quality of life right now. Which problem is bothering you the most?" Stanford asked the patient.

She listened intently and responded with, "Bless your heart."

Stanford then explained the medication she was prescribing.

"I believe in starting low and going slow, and we'll follow you closely so we'll know what's working. And any time you need us before your next appointment, we're here," she said.

This interaction works for both patients and for Stanford, who has been interested in nursing all her life.

However, life was rough around age 15, when both her mother and grandmother died and she dropped out of Huntsville High School. Several husbands and sons came along, as well as surgeries, but Stanford managed to get her high-school diploma equivalent and then follow her dreams.

"Now I've got two master's degrees, so I know you can overcome your challenges," Stanford said.

Her can-do attitude comes across to her patients, and after she shares her story, many realize their problems aren't so bad after all.

She picked up degrees and certifications everywhere, starting in 1973: practical nursing at Anchorage Community College in Alaska; bachelor's and master's in counseling at Memphis State University; and an associate degree in nursing at the University of the State of New York. She thought the counseling degrees would be a wise move after her paralysis.

"But nursing is where God wants me, and I figured out a way to get back to it," said Stanford, who has been a school nurse since 2003.

She completed the registered nurse/Bachelor of Science in nursing bridge program at The University of Alabama in Huntsville, and she also went through an Emergency Medical Technician course. However, she was told her physical limitations would not allow her to work as an EMT.

"I was happy with the RN and EMT areas, but since the EMT part didn't work out, I wanted to do something else," Stanford said. "I'm kind of a workaholic."

That's when she discovered she enjoyed clinics. While at UAH earning a master's degree in nursing as a family nurse practitioner in 2005, she learned about free clinics and how they work. Stanford volunteered and worked part time at a couple of other free clinics in the region and was hoping to start a school-based health clinic in Morgan County.

"I wanted to work some additional hours as a nurse practitioner," she said.

Then a friend told her about this part-time job opening as a nurse practitioner with the Community Free Clinic in Decatur.

It's been a good match since she started working there a year ago, seeing patients on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. until everyone scheduled is seen, which could be 7, 8 or, on a long night, 11 p.m. A doctor usually handles part of the patient load. Clinic medical director Scott Harris oversees Stanford's work as her collaborating physician.

She hopes that next year they can organize a Scale-Back Alabama weight-loss team at the Free Clinic.

"I have to be creative, because many of our patients are hard-working people who don't have the money to buy extras, like gym memberships and exercise equipment," she said. "So I tell them they can lift a couple of cans of vegetables while watching TV.

"I always tell them that little changes over a period of time can make a big difference," Stanford said. "And if you think creatively, the Lord will meet your needs."


Information from: The Decatur Daily,

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.