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Sitting on top of the world: one physician's journey to success.


Sam Wu, MD, MA, MPH, MBA, knows a lot about perseverance and dedication. He's had enough experience with overcoming obstacles that he could write the book, and he knows enough about working his way to the top that he could teach the course. And in many ways, he does. Dr. Wu is the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) at Good Shepherd Penn Partners (GSPP), a Philadelphia-based rehabilitation hospital. While this position undoubtedly manifests Dr. Wu's level of success, his journey to get there was both demanding and enduring.

Born in Taiwan, Dr. Wu contracted polio at age one, leaving him with paralysis of his lower extremities. While still a child in Taiwan, he received physical rehabilitation from physicians visiting from other countries. Their assistance greatly impacted Dr. Wu's physical capabilities, and their knowledge of rehabilitation plus their willingness to help others embodied what he hoped to one day achieve.

In the early 1970's, Dr. Wu's family moved to the United States. It wasn't until his freshman year in college that Dr. Wu decided to pursue a career in medicine, following a conversation with a friend that left him with the realization that he could become a doctor in spite of his disability. This resurfacing interest was a revelation from his past.

"Because of the rehabilitation I had as a child, I was able to get around, despite the paralysis," said Dr. Wu. "Had those physicians not helped me then, my mobility would have been much more limited. And that memory, plus the realization that I could help others with similar disabilities, rekindled the interest and passion I have for medicine."

During his time at Boston University School of Medicine, Dr. Wu started a networking program to help connect young physicians with disabilities with other physicians with disabilities who were more advanced in their careers. He graduated with a BA in 1987, a MA in 1990, and a MD and MPH in 1992. He attended Columbia University Graduate School of Business and in 1999 he received his MBA.

As Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Wu directs the clinical operations of GSPP. As a physiatrist, Dr. Wu provides clinical care to patients, many of who suffer from permanent disabilities. In both roles, he effortlessly demonstrates to patients that it is possible to pursue their dreams in spite of their disabilities. "It is important that the people we treat look to their own goals and not to mine," Wu said. "In addition to the physical rehabilitation we provide, we also help them define what their personal goals are."

Dr. Wu discusses with the majority of his patients the benefits brought to the table by their disabilities. He introduces them to opportunities they may not have seen for themselves. For instance, many of Dr. Wu's patients have had immense exposure to social services or advocacy issues, due in part to their disabilities. Dr. Wu helps them to realize that their familiarization and personal experiences in a specific area may help prepare them to become a professional in that field. He acts as a mentor, working with those he treats to help them recognize their own strengths, and instilling in them the notion that a person with disabilities should strive to achieve their dreams like everyone else.

Dr. Wu tells his patients that there are no shortcuts. Throughout his years of formal education, he went through the same process as everyone else, doing his best to fulfill his responsibility.

When asked what the hardest thing for him to overcome was, Dr. Wu said, "Not knowing." When Dr. Wu began his surgical rotation in medical school, he had no idea what to expect, or how to prepare for potential obstacles. From his first day there, he was faced with the obstacle of getting into the surgical sterile field in the operating room with a motorized scooter. He admitted he did not have the answer, but he was willing to work with the medical and nursing staff to come up with a way to participate without putting the patients in danger. To overcome the low visual field from sitting on his scooter, and to reduce the potential for contamination from his scooter, he and the operating room charge nurse came up with a method where he would scrub while sitting on an elevated laboratory stool with wheels and then the nurse would push him to the operating sterile field after he gowned up.

He worked incredibly hard to achieve his goal of becoming a physician, and even now that he has achieved a level of success that eludes many physicians, he continues to set goals for himself. In any measure of success, there are both physical and social barriers to achieving it. For Dr. Wu, overcoming the physical and social barriers involve more time and effort (in a typical week, he works 70 to 80 hours), as well as exerting more energy to perform and complete tasks.

The notion of trust has contributed greatly to Dr. Wu's success. Not only did he have to earn the trust of his patients, who had to see past his disability for assurance that he would provide them with excellent medical care, but also the trust of his colleagues, who counted on him as an essential part of their team.

While Dr. Wu has experienced disadvantages brought about by his disability, he prefers to turn the challenges he has faced into positive experiences by rendering his disability an advantage, rather than a disadvantage. "To achieve one's goals, it is instrumental to keep an open mind and to view one's disability not as a barrier, but as a source of strength," says Dr. Wu. For instance, Dr. Wu has mastered the tenacity to work harder to get to the same professional skill level as an able-body individual.

Dr. Wu has a unique perspective as a physician in that, unlike him, most of his colleagues are rarely patients. As both a physician and a patient, Dr. Wu has a great deal of experience within the health system. His involvement within the healthcare community as well as his passion for serving others has earned him quite a few honorable positions among prestigious medical associations.

Dr. Wu was appointed to the position of Chairman of the Health Policy & Legislation Committee of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (AAPM&R) in January 2009. Before being appointed this position, Dr. Wu had been the Chairman of the Council of State PM&R Society Presidents, which is also within the AAPM&R. He has been involved in AAPM&R for 14 years.

Prior to moving his medical practice to Philadelphia, Dr. Wu had served as the President of the New York Society of PM&R. During his medical residency, Dr. Wu was also elected as Chairman of the Resident's Section of the Medical Society of the State of New York.

As the current Chairman of the Health Policy & Legislation Committee, Dr. Wu's primary role is to facilitate communication to the members of the AAPMR regarding the various legislative issues that may affect their patients and their medical practice and to recommend specific areas for advocacy efforts to the Board of Governors of the AAPM&R.

"The AAPM&R is an active participant in the healthcare reform process. We continue to advocate appropriate issues that will help improve the lives of individuals with disability," said Dr. Wu. "The AAPM&R is working with a number of different coalitions to achieve this endeavor."

This appointment, as well as others in the past, reflects the work of a man with the resolution to be the best he can be and the tenacity to never give up. Dr. Wu has expressed the joy his work brings him. He views his positions as a privilege. To him, it is not about being a role model for others, but rather, it is about doing things the right way. He says, "I want to exceed that level of 'minimum' and go beyond, to show others that there is a way to do it right, and the approach is indeed doable."

Dr. Wu is an inspiration to those he treats and those he works with, and serves as a reminder that happiness comes from setting and achieving your own goals, not someone else's.

Good Shepherd Penn Partners is a joint venture between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and the University of Pennsylvania Health System. GSPP is located in the Rittenhouse Square area of downtown Philadelphia.. GSPP provides specialized acute inpatient rehabilitation care and long-term acute care for patients with stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury, Parkinson's Disease, other neurological conditions, amputation, joint replacement, organ transplants, heart surgery and other medically complex conditions. GSPP also has eight outpatient clinics named Penn Therapy and Fitness.

Michelle Woolford is an associate with Robinson Packer & Wannenburg (, a strategic communications company which works with Good Shepherd Penn Partners.
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Title Annotation:Sam Wu
Author:Woolford, Michelle
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2009
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