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Death Notice Guestbook

Obituary: Dr. Sandra Welner / Obstetrician-gynecologist, champion for disabled women

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dr. Sandra Welner, 42, an obstetrician-gynecologist whose personal experience with physical disability stimulated her to improve health care for other disabled women, died Saturday in a Washington, D.C., hospital of burns suffered in a fire in her apartment there two weeks ago.

Dr. Welner had been expected to return to Pittsburgh, her hometown, in two weeks to celebrate the opening of the Comprehensive Health Care Center for Women with Disabilities at Magee-Womens Hospital.

Dr. Welner awakened Magee's staff to the obstacles disabled women face when they try to get medical care and then guided it in planning the new center. She also held seminars to sensitize the staff to disability issues.

"She was the national expert on this," said Debbi Linhart, Magee's vice president of ambulatory care and strategic development. "We were looking forward to a long-term relationship."

The examination bed that Dr. Welner invented -- called the universally accessible examination table or simply, the Welner table -- will be used in the Magee clinic, as it's used in hospitals nationwide. The table can be lowered to 20 inches above the floor, easing transfer to and from a wheelchair.

Disabled women may skip screening mammography and Pap tests for cervical cancer because mobility problems can make doctors' appointments an ordeal, said Laurie Moser, executive director of the Pittsburgh Race for the Cure. Some women are unable to get into the correct position for a mammogram, limiting the accuracy of the test.

Dr. Welner spoke about those and other health issues in Pittsburgh and around the world.

"She was fabulous," Moser said. "She raised awareness in the medical community and she helped women with disabilities feel like they [had] a voice."

A specialist in infertility, Dr. Welner was admitted to a hospital for a routine medical problem while traveling in Holland in 1987. Ensuing events led to cardiac arrest. As a result, she suffered serious neurologic damage that primarily affected her mobility.

"My folks were told when she got out of the hospital that they should put her in a nursing home," said her brother, Michael Welner, of New York. "She was totally dependent."

She was also tenacious. During the subsequent five years her parents took care of her in their Connecticut home, Dr. Welner learned to walk and use her hands again. Then she returned to medicine.

But she changed her focus.

"She became much more attuned to how disabled women had unique needs that never got any kind of consideration, and she recognized that this had to be more closely looked at," her brother said.

Dr. Welner primarily taught and conducted research. She examined patients with the assistance of a nurse practitioner because of her residual disability.

"She had substantial coordination deficits and she would move very slowly," her brother said.

Dr. Welner used a cane. When friends suggested that she could move faster in a wheelchair, she accommodated their wishes in what her brother called "true Sandy style." She put her bag in the seat and pushed the chair herself.

She was in the midst of writing a comprehensive textbook, the first of its kind, about health care for women with disabilities.

Dr. Welner was valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar upon her graduation in 1975, at age 16, from Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh. She was 22 when she completed her medical degree at the Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1981. She trained in obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University and then practiced in Philadelphia and Atlanta.

In 1993, Dr. Welner established a primary care program to serve women with disabilities in Washington, D.C. She was a consultant to many state health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition to her brother Michael, who is also a physician, she is survived by her mother, Barbara Welner of Wilkins, and another brother, Dr. Alan Welner of New York.

Visitation will be at 3 p.m. today at the Ralph Schugar Chapel. The funeral will follow.

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