SPOKANE, Wash. – When asked about her doctoral dissertation, WSU nursing Ph.D. candidate Susan Fleming leaned forward in her chair and smiled.
“My primary interest is OB (obstetrics), mothers and babies,” she said.
The nurse of 35 years (and mother of four) gestured with her hands as she talked about interviews with more than two dozen women who have given birth to five or more children. Fleming wanted to know more about their birthing experiences and how the mothers have adapted to changes in hospitals over the years.
Her advisor, nursing professor Roxanne Vandermause, said Fleming’s research is breaking new ground.
Fleming’s studies and experience helping to deliver children earned her an invitation to speak at a conference in Ireland in March.
But there’s another reason she was invited. You can see it if you watch her closely while she gestures. Her left hand is different than her right. Fleming wears a silicone prosthesis. She was born without a left hand.

The Ireland conference sought a nurse with a disability who worked in OB care, Fleming said.

Fleming, left, shakes hands with Mary McAleese,
the president of Ireland, at the nursing conference.
(Photo courtesty of Susan Fleming)
A friend recommended her. On the day before St. Patrick’s Day, she found herself telling her story in a big hall at University College in Dublin. Speakers included disability experts from throughout Europe and even the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese.
Fleming said her disability hasn’t been a hindrance in finding work as a nurse. She has cared for people in hospitals in many parts of the U.S. and Germany where her husband was stationed in the Army.

But she said women with disabilities in the British Isles have run into roadblocks. At the Irish conference, Fleming was followed by a young woman who suffers from a medical condition commonly referred to as “dwarfism.”

The woman wanted to become a nurse in her English town’s hospital.

Fleming, right, with Mary Brosnan,
the matron (or director of nursing)
at the National Maternity Hospital
in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo courtesy
of Susan Fleming)
“She got a lot of flak” from people at the hospital, Fleming said. “They made comments like, ‘I don’t think you can hold a pen correctly.’ Their comments were totally unfounded.
“And that really brings to light that, even though the laws are in place, if you don’t have the people to support students or nurses with disabilities, it won’t happen,” she said.
It has been a different story for Fleming in Spokane. She credits WSU College of Nursing administrators for accommodating not only her, but other students with disabilities.

The week after her trip, Fleming successfully defended her doctoral dissertation. She looks forward to collecting her Ph.D. during the May commencement ceremony. The honor will rank right up there with meeting and having her picture taken with the Irish president.

Still, when asked her favorite memory of Ireland, Fleming said, almost with reverence, that it was her visit to the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin. There, nurse midwives are allowed to spend more time directly caring for women in labor. And Cesarean birth rates are roughly 35 percent less than they are in the U.S.