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Wheelchair fails to deter paraplegic from nurse's life
12.28.03 By Beverly Creamer Advertiser Education Writer

From his wheelchair, Barry McKeown has connected IV bags for accident victims, monitored heart rates in the intensive care unit, counseled geriatric patients saving the life of one with emergency CPR comforted sick children and given inspiration to innumerable patients facing personal tragedies.

 He has raced his wheelchair down the halls of Kaiser Permanente with a 7-year-old opponent in a wheelchair of his own.

And on Jan. 7, when McKeown rolls up the ramp to the stage at the Waikiki Shell as part of a Hawai'i Pacific University graduating class of 600, he will likely become the first paraplegic in Hawai'i, and quite possibly the nation, to receive a bachelor's degree in nursing. 

"Our faculty are willing to work with any student, but they weren't sure how he would navigate in the clinical facilities," said HPU professor and dean of nursing Carol Winters-Moorhead. "But he has convinced them all he can do anything. He's amazing."

At 47, McKeown is rebuilding his life, with a new degree that has taken five years to achieve and an ebullience that overcomes even those painful moments when he wishes he could dance or surf, or even take a few steps.

"Seeing me going through this experience is probably the best lesson (for patients)," he says. "I can understand the pain. I can understand everything. I tell them what helped me get through the pain was the water. I push the water to everyone.

"Every spinal cord patient should be in the water because you're free in the water. You can move everything. It helps my strength, my metabolism."

A life-long surfer, paddler and all-round "waterman" who participated in the Moloka'i-to-O'ahu canoe race at least 15 times and still does roughwater swims, McKeown was paralyzed from the waist down seven years ago after he fell asleep at the wheel on his way out to the North Shore and crashed into a city bus. It took two hours for paramedics to extricate him from the vehicle, and two weeks for him to come out of a coma.

"I had a lot of dreams," he said. "The last dream I remember I was flying in the air. Both parents were buried at Punchbowl and I was flying and heading down into the grave. Just before I hit the headstone I woke up."

McKeown said the challenges of pursuing a nursing degree came more easily to him because he spent 20 years as an Emergency Medical Technician for the City and County of Honolulu, and for the federal government at the Barking Sands Missile Range on Kaua'i. He was familiar with the steps necessary to stabilize critically injured people, and the strength and determination it takes to handle trauma.

"The one big issue was lifting a patient," he said. "I've been in the medical field for so long, and you never lift a patient by yourself. You always ask for help."

During his clinical training with older patients at Pohai Nani Good Samaritan Retirement Community, his ability was suddenly tested when a patient stopped breathing.

"Barry got the patient on the floor and administered CPR," said nursing dean Winters-Moorhead. "We're so proud of him."

But nursing from a wheelchair during his clinical training had its challenges. To handle certain demands, McKeown got a special wheelchair that enables the user to stand up. He got the chair through the Veterans Administration (he served during the Vietnam era), and it gave him the additional height he needed.

"In my junior year they told me 'You can't continue unless you get a standup wheelchair." With a letter from the school, the Veterans Administration paid for a chair made in France.

Still, it was rough, especially his first day at Tripler Army Medical Center, when a wheel fell off.

"So the chair shoots up and I slide down on the floor," said McKeown. "And right then the doctors are doing their rounds."

Fortunately he was able to repair the chair that evening and hasn't had problems since. But he has also ordered an electric standing wheelchair from France worth $16,000 that's lighter and more maneuverable and will make the job easier.

McKeown goes through a wheelchair a year, perhaps because of his daily swim at Ala Moana Beach Park. He'll catch a bus over, get off at the center, make his way across the street, get a push over the bridge from a passerby, and rely on other beachgoers to pull the chair out of the water after he has plunged in.

"I pop little wheelies across the sand," he said. "Then I roll right in the water."

Always there will be someone nearby who is willing to pull the chair out of the water, and someone else later who will pull it back in after he has done his daily backstroke mileage.

"People from all over the world have helped me," he said.

But McKeown doesn't think he would have finished his degree if not for HPU. At one point, after four months in the hospital with a deeply infected bedsore, he couldn't sit in his chair in class, so school custodians built him a special cot that he could roll onto from his chair and take notes in class.

"Barry is a delight in class," said Lila Montambo, an HPU clinical instructor in obstetrics and gynecology who immediately recognized his strength in working with patients as well as other students.

"I remember the feedback from nurses on the floor and a couple of patients who were very impressed," said Montambo. "He's very much a people person."

McKeown hopes to get his advanced cardiac life support license soon, is going to apply for training in the intensive care units at several hospitals, and then expects to write his nursing board exams in the spring. By March he'll be looking for a job.

Reach Beverly Creamer at or 525-8013.

Article borrowed from the Honolulu Advertiser. Permission requested.