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An unbreakable spirit

Date: 3/17/2014



Growing up with “brittle bone disease,” Pam Wagar ’06 didn’t think someone in a wheelchair stood a chance of becoming a medical doctor. Today, having climbed what once seemed like insurmountable mountains that blocked her progress, she’s a physician, completing her residency while pursuing a career in pediatrics.

Step on a crack, break your mama’s back.

Yes, most folks break a bone or two during their lifetimes and usually the well-worn children’s playground chant plays no role. But for those combating osteogenesis imperfecta — or OI for short — that number can easily climb into the hundreds. And it can seem that fracturing an arm or leg can be triggered by something as easy as, well, stepping on a proverbial crack.

According to the OI Foundation, as many as 50,000 Americans have the genetic disorder that is often known as “brittle bone disease.” Pam Wagar ’06 is one of them. She’s suffered more than 200 fractures since she was diagnosed with the disease at age 2. Despite her fragile bones, Wagar’s will is rock solid.

She is a pediatrics resident at The Children’s Hospital of Georgia in Augusta, pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a physician and planning to work with special-needs children. “I want to help kids who struggle with chronic medical conditions every day,” Wagar said.“I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was in elementary school, but didn’t think people in wheelchairs went to med school,” Wagar says. “I enrolled at Alvernia with the intention of doing medical illustration, so I majored in biology and minored in art.”

By her junior year, Wagar’s interest in biology intensified. And with some encouragement from her professors, she began to see her future more clearly. “I did some research online, and I discovered there were physicians in wheelchairs,” she says. From there, it didn’t take long for the idea to catch on.

After earning her undergraduate degree from Alvernia in 2006, Wagar enrolled in Penn State Hershey College of Medicine, graduating in 2013. She was soon spending her days at children’s bedsides in Augusta, training to become something that was once unthinkable — a pediatrician.Her residency — an occasion that most able-bodied individuals pursuing medical degrees find challenging — has presented more than a few logistical obstacles. All students receive training on how to examine patients. But in addition to learning the proper way to listen to hearts and look in ears, Wagar must develop unique strategies to grasp door handles to patient rooms, pull down bed rails and reach infants in cribs.

Photo: Pam Wagar“When I am examining patients, I have to constantly remind myself of my limitations,” she says. “Everyone with OI has different weaknesses; for me, it is my upper arms, so I can’t lift certain things or reach out very far. I must hold myself up to stand to examine patients and use my wheelchair footrest to reach over to a patient’s bed.” These were the realities Wagar needed to keep top of mind while researching residency programs, with climate, city size and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant buildings as factors. “I’m not really comfortable in large cities, and I didn’t think a program would appreciate me saying I couldn’t come in because it was snowing,” she says.

Spencer S. Stober, Ph.D., professor of biology and educational leadership studies at Alvernia, remembers Wagar’s unshakable spirit, describing her as capable, industrious, creative and independent.

“Pam is brilliant,” he says. “She is motivated, and she has a very strong work ethic. Her self-confidence and respect for the feelings of others enable her to get along very well with people, and her enthusiasm for life makes her a model for us all to emulate.”

Stober served as adviser for her senior honors thesis, which she wrote on the effects of OI on social outcomes. Through her Internet-based survey of the young adult OI community, Wagar uncovered a lack of emotional support for people with OI.

Today, Wagar feels she brings a unique ability to the medical field, while paving the way for others.

“There aren’t many physicians in wheelchairs, so I feel like a bit of a pioneer,” she says. “And I use it to my advantage. A lot of patients appreciate my background, having been a patient many times myself, and the patients’ parents feel I truly understand what their children are going through.”

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