Gabrielle Baldwin’s amazing journey
In May 2016, Gabrielle Baldwin decided to attend what was supposed to be her graduation from the UNC Greensboro School of Nursing.
She shed a few tears as she entered the Coleman Building thinking this was nothing like how she had envisioned her graduation. She was in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down.
Baldwin showed up in the blue cap and gown she ordered for the occasion, even though she knew she wouldn’t be graduating that day. She posed for photographs and made her way onto the stage when her name was called.
She was honored to be included in the ceremony with the rest of the Class of 2016.
Four months earlier, Baldwin had sustained a spinal cord injury when her older brother attacked her while she was staying at her mother’s house in Burlington. She had been home for winter break, and she was set to begin her final semester at UNCG in five days.
Baldwin’s C-5 and C-6 vertebrates were damaged during the attack on Jan. 6, 2016. While recovering at a hospital in Chapel Hill and then a rehabilitation center in Atlanta, she had been unable to finish the last requirements needed for her to earn a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree.
“I was so angry with God after my injury because I was like ‘Why would you let this happen to me?’ I was doing good. I wanted to save lives and help lives,” Baldwin said. “Why did this happen to me? I was living a good life. I was a good person. I had a lot of anger and resentment towards God.”
Baldwin now considers Jan. 6 as her “Life Day,” a term she picked up from other individuals who have sustained spinal cord injuries. On that Wednesday six years ago, the then-21-year-old nursing student was given a second chance at life and “reborn” a different person.
Now 27, Baldwin is married and the mother of a two-year-old girl and stepmother to a 10-year-old boy. She said her perspective on life has changed, though her desire to become a nurse has only intensified since she learned to turn her trauma to triumph.
Baldwin returned to the School of Nursing in August 2021, seven years after she started the BSN program, ready to wrap up her degree. She needed to audit several courses she had previously taken, finish some classes that had been added since 2016, and complete the last of her clinical rotations.
She’s scheduled to graduate in May 2023.
“There are so many things you can do in nursing. You don’t have to do bedside nursing. There’s a lot of compassion needed,” Baldwin said. “You have to have a heart of a nurse and a mind of a nurse. It’s not so much the physical capabilities of a nurse that should hinder anybody.
“So, I’m glad that UNCG saw that, that they saw that I would make a good nurse and that I deserved to finish nursing school despite my disability.”
It’s a unique situation for the School of Nursing.
Baldwin’s husband, Eric Vanderkuyl, is not only her partner but also her caregiver. A licensed practical nurse (LPN), he accompanies her to classes inside the Nursing and Instructional Building. At around 7:50 a.m. on most mornings, Vanderkuyl assembles Baldwin’s wheelchair outside the building. He also takes notes for her
since she has limited use of her hands.
“I help her get ready for class and just pretty much be her hands when she’s not able to,” Vanderkuyl said. “She does as much as she can, but I want to pick her up and carry her whenever I can, so it’s a plus.”
Baldwin laughed. “It helps that I’m tiny,” she said.
School of Nursing faculty members were excited to see Baldwin at the 2016 graduation and encouraged her to return as soon as possible to complete her degree.
They’re now working on ways for Baldwin to finish her clinicals in a manner that complies with the North Carolina Board of Nursing’s requirement for a focused client care experience, specifically a clinical experience that simulates an entry-level work experience.
PURSUING BOTH NURSING AND A RECORD DEAL
Baldwin comes from a family of women who wanted to become nurses before their career plans changed.
Her great-grandmother was in nursing school in England when she met Baldwin’s great-grandfather while he was stationed there with the U.S. Navy. She never returned to nursing school, though she later graduated magna cum laude from Elon University with a master’s degree in English.
Years later, Baldwin’s mother was in nursing school when she was forced to leave because of postpartum complications with Baldwin. She used the skills she learned in nursing school as a dialysis technician, and she always encouraged her daughter to become a nurse.
Baldwin said she wasn’t sure she wanted to major in nursing when she arrived at UNCG as a freshman in Fall 2012. She was curious enough to attend an information session that the School of Nursing held for students interested in earning a BSN.
Baldwin left the session excited about what she had heard. She was accepted into the School of Nursing as a junior in 2014.
At the time, her younger sister, Dajea Scott, was thinking about applying to nursing schools. Just like her mother had encouraged her, Baldwin encouraged Scott to become a nurse.
Scott became the first nurse in the family after she graduated from Pfeiffer University. For Baldwin, though, nursing was somewhat of a backup plan.
“I wanted to have nursing under my sleeve, but when I actually graduated, I had planned to go to Los Angeles and sing,” she said. In the eighth grade, Baldwin performed at the Greensboro Coliseum as part of an “American Idol”-like contest called “Triad Idol.” She then auditioned for NBC’s “The Voice.”
While at UNCG, Baldwin had a local manager and was recording R&B and soul music every Saturday in addition to taking nursing classes and working as an au pair for a family in Summerfield.
Baldwin was booked to sing with a band at a concert in April 2016. After her injury, her concert was turned into a benefit show, and the proceeds went toward her medical bills.
Friends made T-shirts and bracelets to show their support for Baldwin during her recovery. They used the hashtag #GabbyStrong on social media.
HER PINNING CEREMONY
Baldwin has reached a point in her recovery where she’s able to talk matter-of-factly about the day she was injured.
She testified that her brother banged on her bedroom door on the morning of Jan. 6, 2016, asking for hair bows for his dreadlocks. When she unlocked her door and opened it, he attacked her.
In December 2021, her brother was sentenced to 48 years in prison after being convicted for shooting and killing a man in a park in Denver, Colorado. At the time, he was awaiting a retrial on charges of kidnapping and inflicting serious injury during the attack on Baldwin five years earlier.
“I’ve told my testimony a good amount of times. I guess it’s been six years now. I think it’s part of the healing process,” Baldwin said. “It’s like you get used to it. I think people just get that way with their personal stories, so I’m more comfortable now.
“I’m really grateful for that. I’ve had plenty of times when I’ve cried throughout telling it, but I think this is a different point in my life.”
Dr. Lori Hubbard, who taught Baldwin in a childbearing and reproductive health course, visited Baldwin as she was recovering from her spinal cord injury in intensive care. Baldwin had tubes in her nose and throat to help her breathe and eat, and she had a communication board because she couldn’t talk.
Only a few days after the attack, Hubbard accompanied a small group that included several UNCG faculty members, three of Baldwin’s close friends from nursing school, and her mother and sister. They held an emotional pinning ceremony for Baldwin in her hospital room.
The pinning ceremony is a rite of passage for nursing students, and Baldwin had expected to be “pinned” with the rest of the Class of 2016. Her pin was instead placed on her blue hospital gown.
“Because the treatments and therapy in the early time after a spinal cord injury are critical to long-term recovery, I wanted to offer her as much encouragement as possible soon after the incident,” Hubbard said. “At the time, Gabby and her family lived one street over from me in Burlington. I would drive past the scene of the incident and pray for her, and I just wanted to see her in-person to tell her how much the faculty and I cared about her and wanted her to work hard for recovery.”
Another School of Nursing professor recorded her class lectures so Baldwin could watch them during her five-week-long stay in the hospital.
“She sat right beside me in every class,” said Katie Richardson, who earned her BSN in 2016 and has been friends with Baldwin since they had a class together during their first semester at UNCG. “So I was like ‘You know, nobody is sitting in your seat. You’ve got to come back.’”
It was difficult, however, for Baldwin to keep up in class in the months after her injury. She eventually withdrew from UNCG.
“Not being able to finish my schooling was very, very frustrating and caused me a lot of resentment and a lot of anger and a lot of depression because I was so close to my goal,” Baldwin said. “I mean I had ordered my cap and gown, never expecting my reality to crumble as it had.”
THE SILVER LINING
Baldwin found herself in a dark place. She became depressed while recovering at her mother’s house.
Baldwin said she had difficulty healing emotionally while staying in the same place where she was attacked. She then made a New Year’s resolution to change her outlook on life.
On Jan. 1, 2017, five days shy of the one-year anniversary of her incident, Baldwin told herself she needed to grow into a better person. he reconnected with her faith and became more social, eventually meeting Vanderkuyl on social media.
“We were just friends for like a year. He just helped me to be more social. He would just not leave me alone,” Baldwin said, laughing. Vanderkuyl was a nursing student at ECPI University at the time, but he was struggling to complete his degree. He wanted to take a break from his classes to care for Baldwin on a full-time basis, but she insisted he stay focused and finish nursing school.
Vanderkuyl earned his LPN degree from ECPI in January 2018. He and Baldwin started dating and fell in love. They had a daughter, Zaine, on Dec. 16, 2019, joining a son, Kache, from Vanderkuyl’s previous marriage.
The couple considers Jan. 10 as the anniversary of when they started dating. It happens to be four days after the anniversary of when Baldwin was injured. She and Vanderkuyl got married on Easter Sunday, April 17, 2022.
It’s not a coincidence they picked that date for their wedding. If Jan. 6 is Baldwin’s “Life Day,” then she said Easter is “the day of renewal.”
She used a special wheelchair provided by the nonprofit organization Waymaker Off-Road Wheelchairs to get to the altar on her wedding day in Haw River, N.C.
“I think it’s the silver lining to my testimony. I’ve been through a lot of trauma, and the love that I found in him is a silver lining to all of it because it has been a lot. It has been a huge struggle. This is where I get emotional,” Baldwin said, holding back tears.
“He has a lot on his shoulders, so he’s like the real hero in all this. But it’s really special because he’s a nurse, so we have a common interest in that, and he just likes supporting me. Just like I helped him, he’s helped me.”
APPROACHING THE FINISH LINE
While Baldwin was at home taking care of her newborn daughter, she felt a calling to return to UNCG and finally finish her BSN.
“When I had my daughter and was able to give birth naturally despite my injury and a lot of people thinking it wasn’t possible, I felt like I could accomplish anything,” Baldwin said. “Once I became a mom, I felt a burst of immense motivation.”
Then, the coronavirus pandemic broke out in the U.S., forcing classes in the School of Nursing to go virtual. The online classes would be more accessible for students like Baldwin with physical limitations.
Baldwin spoke to School of Nursing faculty and staff members about the possibility of returning to finish her degree. First, though, she had to clear up some confusion they had.
They were under the impression she was paraplegic and could use her hands fully during her clinicals. She explained that, while she can move her wrists, she no longer has enough hand function to administer a shot or check a patient’s blood pressure.
After re-enrolling at UNCG, Baldwin arrived with Vanderkuyl in August 2021 for her first day back in the School of Nursing.
“I would actually say I’m doing this for myself and also for my daughter because I have a disability,” Baldwin said, “and I want to show her that I can overcome and that a disability shouldn’t stop someone from pursuing their dreams.”
After coming so close to graduating six years ago, Baldwin said she’s not taking anything for granted. She doesn’t want to jinx herself and envision what it would be like for her to attend her actual graduation from the School of Nursing.
“Instead of graduating honorarily, it will be an honor to roll across the stage and accept my BSN in May,” Baldwin said.
By Alex Abrams, School of Nursing
Photography by David Row ’09, ’16 MFA and courtesy photography