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Newberg woman becomes the first wheelchair user in Oregon to graduate nursing school

Dani Hillenbrand, 23, is paving the way for other disabled people in the healthcare industry.

NEWBERG, Ore. — A 23-year-old in Newberg just made history as the first wheelchair user to graduate from nursing school in Oregon.

Dani Hillenbrand grew up with the dream of helping others. Her passion for the medical field started when she was 17 years old, when she took care of a family member in the hospital.

“I got really excited about the possibility of going into healthcare,” she said.

Last year, while she was already in nursing school, Hillenbrand suffered a catastrophic medical event that left her in a wheelchair. While many would be discouraged, Hillenbrand said it pushed her to work even harder.

“When it comes to what I do and what I know I can do, it’s not challenging — the challenges that I do face are imposed by society, and assumptions made about disabled people,” she said.

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When she started using a wheelchair, she said that school did get harder.

“There’s a lot of pre-existing assumptions made about disabled people,” Hillenbrand said.

She said these assumptions made it difficult for her to be viewed on the same level as the other students.

“A lot of the time people would refer to ‘oh, the wheelchair’ ... it’s like, I’m not a wheelchair — this is a wheelchair," Hillenbrand said, gesturing to her chair. "I’m a person and I’m totally capable.”

Credit: Dani Hillenbrand
Dr. Robin Baker presents Dani Hillenbrand with her diploma from George Fox University.

Now she’s the first wheelchair user to graduate from George Fox University’s College of Nursing – an accomplishment that paves the way for others just like her. She has her nursing license and a job, but knows the road ahead won’t be easy.

“There are going to be really hard days, and it’s going to suck a lot of the time,” Hillenbrand admitted.

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She holds onto the hope that she can help patients in ways no one else can, especially those in wheelchairs.

“I can connect really well with patients,” she said.

Hillenbrand has this message for other wheelchair users looking to get into healthcare:

“You can’t let your advocacy for yourself waver. You have to know that you’re going to have to advocate really hard for yourself throughout all of it.”

Hillenbrand’s professors at George Fox University also released a statement following her graduation:

“Throughout Dani's time in the nursing program, she worked collaboratively with nursing faculty … to overcome concerns that prevent applicants with disabilities from entering the nursing profession. Together, we have altered the way that clinical agencies perceive nurses who have a disability.”

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