GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — One UNC Greensboro graduate celebrated an achievement 22 years in the making.

Irene Richardson, a Burlington native, is getting ready to step into the health care field after graduating from UNCG’s School of Nursing Thursday.

Walking across the stage at graduation and receiving her bachelor of science in nursing was something Richardson always knew she would do even after spending three years in a wheelchair.

“That was my moment to stand tall and realize that my journey had gotten me here because of my disability and not in spite of,” she said.

Richardson has neuromyelitis optica, a rare condition where the immune system damages the spinal cord and the nerves in your eyes. She dealt with a lot of grief and uncertainty and spent lots of time in and out of the hospital after getting the diagnosis in 2015.

“Those nurses stayed with me. They cried with me. They held my hand, and they let me know that life is what I’m going to put into it,” Richardson said. “It’s a boomerang. If you put in negativity, if you put in doubt, if you put in fear, that’s what you’re gonna get back.”

Those health care workers played a crucial part in Richardson’s decision to enroll in nursing school.

“I knew that I could make a difference because they made a difference for me,” she said.

Juggling two daughters, a full-time job with Cone Health and chemotherapy all while earning her degree wasn’t easy.

“You feel so isolated,” Richardson said. “You feel like you’re not good enough. You feel like every obstacle can derail your dreams completely.”

Richardson pushed through and even became president of UNCG’s nursing class.

“This is not something a person does on their own,” she said. “You need an army of people behind you, and I decided I could be that for the class of 2022.”

Four years later at age 39, Richardson is now a nurse. She’s ready to go out in the world and make a difference in people’s lives just like those nurses did for her.

“I’m looking forward to treating that first patient and them giving me that look that says ‘yes. I’m better thanks to you,'” she said.”

Richardson will start treating those patients at the end of July. She’s accepted a job in the emergency department at Duke Raleigh Hospital.