Irene Richardson was in South Florida to attend a pathology research symposium when she woke up in her hotel room and discovered she couldn’t move her arms or legs.
She used the voice recognition function on her cell phone to call for help.
Doctors initially believed stress and fatigue had brought on the numbness in Richardson’s limbs. Their opinions changed two months later when she lost vision in her right eye and couldn’t walk around the grocery store without getting tired.
After undergoing tests, Richardson was diagnosed in 2015 with neuromyelitis optica (NMO), a rare condition in which a person’s immune system attacks a substance in the body that serves as insulation around the nerves. The condition is similar to multiple sclerosis.
No one else in Richardson’s family has been diagnosed with NMO, which affects approximately 1-10 people per 100,000.
“When I was diagnosed, the only people that could truly understand what I was going through were my nurses at the time, the ones that would hold my hand, cry with me, and help me do all the things that I couldn’t do for myself,” Richardson said. “They would treat me with dignity. They would give me encouragement to keep going, keep trying, keep fighting.”
They also inspired Richardson, who was married with two teenage daughters, to enroll at UNC Greensboro at age 36 and pursue a career in nursing.
To do so, she’d have to juggle nursing school, a full-time job, and her family life – all while getting chemotherapy treatments every five months to keep her NMO symptoms manageable.
Four years later, Richardson, 40, is earning her bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree from the School of Nursing. Even more, she’s graduating as president of the School of Nursing’s Class of 2022.
“It is hard to find the right words to describe. It is like I wished on a shooting star, and now I’m holding it in my hands,” Richardson said. “I am exhausted and jubilant all at once. Get ready. This will be the first of many accomplishments for me and my class.”
Richardson became interested in health care after starting what was supposed to be a temporary job at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital.
Richardson went from filing paperwork and microscope slides to helping with pathology research. She acquired tumor samples and found patients to participate in research studies, but she said she felt limited in her job because she only had an associate’s degree in general studies.
“I thought this is just not enough. There’s still so much else I could do. I was 36 years old at the time with a two-year degree,” Richardson said. “And I thought ‘You know that nursing degree, it could be mine. I just need two more years to finish.’ And I decided just to go for it.
“I’d rather shoot for it and say, ‘Hey, at least I gave it a shot, at least I tried’ than to be four years later in the same position, wondering the same thing.”
Richardson started taking classes at UNCG in Fall 2018. A year later, Tammy Hall, a clinical instructor in the School of Nursing, was introduced to Richardson after hearing about her story.
They immediately hit it off. Hall encouraged Richardson to apply to the BSN program, and Richardson often stopped by Hall’s office to talk.
“She had such a positive outlook, even after the physical obstacles she had endured. I knew she was just what we were looking for in a Spartan Nurse,” Hall said. “She has been a ray of hope and optimism for the senior class. Her presence will be missed in the School of Nursing.”
In Spring 2019, Richardson arrived at the Margaret C. Moore Building – the former home of the School of Nursing – in a power wheelchair that she sometimes used to help her get around because of her condition.
Richardson admitted she felt self-conscious about meeting with Britt Flanagan, an academic advisor in the School of Nursing, to discuss applying to the BSN program while she was in a wheelchair. She stood up out of her wheelchair and walked into Flanagan’s office.
“Honestly, I did not know what to think. Irene had many obstacles to overcome, emotionally and physically,” Flanagan said. “She was very forthcoming, and I was impressed by her strength and openness to share her story.
“In September 2021, I was not at all surprised that Irene was running for president for the Class of 2022, and she has led this class to the end through a very difficult time with COVID-19.”
Since her NMO treatments are expensive, Richardson has had to continue working at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital to maintain her health insurance while taking classes in the School of Nursing.
She works night shifts at the hospital on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Her 12-hour shift that begins on Sunday ends at 7 a.m. Monday, which has given her just enough time to rush home and shower before her 8 a.m. nursing classes.
Richardson often took naps in between classes to give her body a rest. It was then back to her “daywalker schedule,” as she called it.
“You might see me slumped over in the student lounge with my headphones on and my sleep mask on,” Richardson said, laughing. “So I do get a nice break.”
On days she didn’t work, Richardson would wake up between 4:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. because she needed extra time to get ready for class. The heat from a hot shower could cause her to become fatigued.
Richardson already has her first nursing job lined up for after graduation. She’ll soon start working in the emergency department at Duke Raleigh Hospital.
“It’s the passion and perseverance of people like Irene that make nursing a great profession,” said Dr. Debra Barksdale, dean of the School of Nursing.
Richardson isn’t the only member of her family celebrating a milestone.
In June, her older daughter, Dorian, 18, is graduating from Weaver Academy in Greensboro and will attend UNC Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, her younger daughter, Camryn, 16, is preparing to join the UNC School of the Arts as a high school senior in the fall.
After years of struggling with NMO, unsure of what her new normal would look like, Richardson now can’t stop smiling.
“I’ll have my condition for the rest of my life, and I will be striving every day for the rest of my life to live meaningfully and to learn as much as possible and do compassionate work,” Richardson said.
#UNCGGrad, celebrate with us!
Graduates are invited to share their accomplishments on social media by using related “digital swag,” tagging posts #UNCGGrad, and using Commencement-themed Instagram AR and Snapchat filters at the Greensboro Coliseum. The University will display #UNCGGrad-tagged Instagram and Twitter posts live before the ceremony. Graduates are also encouraged to use the Commencement 2022 persona in the UNCG Mobile App.
Story by Alex Abrams, School of Nursing
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications