A very special Meet-a-Mom Monday, as we feature a truly amazing local mother, Dr. Denise Wunderler. A Holmdel resident, wife and mother of 3 (2 on Earth ages 7 and 10, and 1 in heaven, who died at 2.8 years old on 11-12-17), Denise has dedicated her life to working as a dual board-certified sports medicine physician and as the founder of the family’s non-profit, Team Vienna 4 SUDC Awareness, Inc. Denise shares with us below her heartbreaking story of losing her beautiful daughter, Vienna, three years ago, her family’s experience with COVID-19, her incredible work as a sports physician, and her life here with her family in Monmouth County.
Dr. Denise Wunderler, DO, FAOASM
Where are you from originally and how long have you lived in town?
I was born in NJ, however my Dad was in the Air Force, so my nuclear family moved a lot. I lived in 6 states before I was 9 (including Alaska, Nevada, and Montana), when we moved back to my parents’ hometown of Northampton, PA, which is where I lived until I studied at Muhlenberg College. After graduation, I moved to NJ to work at Merck in Rahway as a research scientist for 6 years. Then I went to medical school to become a physician in Kansas City, Missouri, and did my clinical rotations all over the country. I did my family medicine residency and sports medicine fellowship within the Cleveland Clinic Health System in Cleveland, Ohio. After meeting and marrying my Army physician husband, we moved from Ohio to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and then 2 years later, we were transferred by the US Army to Fort Knox, Kentucky. We lived in Louisville, KY, for 5 years, until we moved to Princeton Junction, NJ, in 2016, and then finally Holmdel, NJ, in 2017, to be closer to family, old friends, and great public education. I am a dual board-certified sports medicine physician, currently working in Freehold, NJ, taking care of patients (and since COVID-19, wearing all the PPE).
Child(ren) and Age(s)?
3 children- 2 on earth ages 7 and 10, and 1 in heaven, who died at 2.8 years old on 11-12-17 in Holmdel.
Our youngest daughter Vienna fell asleep on the carpet while watching TV at home and never woke up. My husband Mike and I were driving home from a day wedding at the time of the horrible phone call. Despite my husband and I being physicians, we learned about SUDC – Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood, in the worst way possible, when it happened to us. SUDC is a category of death in kids 1-18 years old, that is still unexplained after a thorough investigation, including an autopsy. Even her genetic studies (as part of a research study), did not reveal a cause of death. As part of the research, all organ systems were studied in significant detail, including her brain. It is 2.5 years since my precious daughter died, and we still do not have a cause. I work tirelessly for Vienna’s legacy, and I will not rest until I have a cause for her death, and the death of so many other healthy kids. When your child dies, nothing is ever the same.
One thing people would be surprised to know about you?
1-I wrote a message to my daughter Vienna over the first 2 months after she died, and her favorite musician took my words and created the music and performed the song. Inspired by this unbelievable gift of music, I started guitar lessons again (after 20 years) and for the first time ever, performed the first verse of the song, “I Think About You (Song for Vienna)”, before my TED-style talk (to draw more attention to my topic) entitled, “Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood (SUDC): My Personal Story of Loss,” in Baltimore, MD, at a national physician’s conference in Oct 2019.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvDNk9KxxkQ&t=6s (the talk)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLXQzoVV0X8 (the song)
2-I was in the 2008 and 2009 movies of the Ironman World Championship Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. I volunteered on the Ironman course in 2008, and then volunteered in the medical tent at the race in 2009.
3-I have driven across the U.S. by myself more than 10x, and I’ve been in every state except Maine.
4-I summitted Mt. Hood (volcano) in Oregon and Kyanjin Ri (almost 16,000 feet) in Nepal.
5-I completed a rural medicine rotation in Dillingham, Alaska (340 air miles southwest of Anchorage), taking care of Yup’ik Eskimo natives. The only way to access Dillingham is by air or water. I also had the amazing opportunity to take care of patients in Igiugig, Alaska, which is a tiny Native Alaskan village on Lake Iliamna, which had a population of 47 when I was there.
6-I rode a snowboard down the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado.
Anyone special person you’d like to thank for helping you through parenthood?
My husband Mike Savino is my best friend, and my #1 teammate in raising our family. I am still the “primary” parent, but we balance each other out. We have known each other for over 16 years and have been married for almost 13 years. After our sweet Vienna died in 2017, life is more challenging than ever, especially since we handle our grief differently. But we know that we can survive this nightmare better together….plus our 2 surviving kids need us more than ever.
Your family was recently affected by COVID-19. What was your experience like?
It was very stressful and crazy busy. My husband is an emergency medicine physician working in north Jersey in an ER, and he started having symptoms of COVID-19 toward the end of March 2020. Luckily for a week prior to his symptoms, he stayed in our extra room which soon became known at the “COVID Cave”, and the kids and I stayed away for fear of getting ill. This was at the beginning when NJ was really heating up as a hot spot for the pandemic. No one really knew what worked for patients to treat this completely new virus. Mike fought the virus and stayed quarantined at home in our “COVID Cave” for 12 days on oxygen and medicines, until his breathing was so labored, that he didn’t think he’d survive another night at home. We tried to keep him out of the hospital, knowing resources were in short supply and there were other patients who needed the resources more. Since schools and my work were closed, I helped our kids with school at home and researched extensively on how to help him when he was at home and in the hospital. For a solid month, I spent a significant amount of time researching treatments and clinical trials and contacting physicians around the country and the world, to see what was working and what wasn’t in different locations. There were days when I was in the middle of 10 text conversations at once with physicians and nurses all over the country, as I was trying to gather my information and help Mike as much as I could.
During this whole process, he was chronicling his COVID journey on Facebook on a daily basis. Many followed him from around the world as he put a face to this horrible disease, that many in other areas didn’t believe was happening. He used his great sense of humor to deal with the severity of the illness, and this gave people everywhere a sense of hope but also real information that didn’t come from a TV. There were several news articles and interviews that spawned from his experience. All of those can be found at https://vienna.team/awareness .
Favorite things to do with your kids?
Many things! Riding bikes, play with/watch them play basketball, sing/make up songs, hike, teach life lessons using my own personal sports/mountain experiences
Are you involved in a business venture, a local organization, a creative endeavor, or in the corporate world? Please share!
1-I am the Founder and President of our family’s 501c3 nonprofit, Team Vienna 4 SUDC Awareness, Inc. (www.Vienna.team ). Team Vienna’s mission is awareness/education/research support of SUDC (Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood), while honoring my youngest daughter Vienna Carly Savino. I am a very active volunteer in all aspects of the nonprofit, especially with the medical education aspect and giving Medical Grand Rounds (presentations) at medical schools and hospitals. We do not learn about SUDC in our education, so it’s imperative that the medical community and the general public know about SUDC to propel the cause forward. I also founded the annual Vienna’s Day of International SUDC Awareness, which had Team Vienna representation on all 7 continents for the 2nd year in a row in May 2020. We have had a lot of local media attention which has been fantastic, however, we are looking to expand our media to other parts of the country and beyond. If anyone can please help us out with that, it would be greatly appreciated! The end goal is to discover causes of SUDC, and prevent other families from experiencing our own personal tragedy. Thank you! All of Team Vienna’s articles can be found at https://vienna.team/awareness .
2-Because working together as a team and combining resources accelerates awareness/education/research of SUDC, a fellow SUDC mom from Colorado and I founded The SUDC Coalition (www.SUDCcoalition.com ). This is an all-inclusive welcoming group of non-profits, individuals, parents, physicians, researchers, companies, etc. who care about SUDC and wish to be involved in this fight to get answers for these unexplained deaths of seemingly healthy kids 1-18 years old.
3-I am an International Team Physician for USA Volleyball/FIVB since 2009. I have traveled to Peru, Guatemala, Canada, and Cuba in support of Team USA.
How has this community been instrumental in getting you to where you are now?
My family and I lived in Holmdel for only 2.5 months and then Vienna died in 2017. The outpouring of love and support from our town and surrounding areas was unbelievable! The closest family member was 1.5 hours away, and we only had a few friends locally. So many new friendships were grown from the most horrible situation. I remember one neighbor in particular… we didn’t know her at the time. The day after Vienna died, she came by our house and dropped off a note. I think back at how brave she was (with a little coaxing from her daughter) to actually knock on our door. She had no idea how we were going to react to her offer of help. It turned out that she was one of 4 new friends who really helped us out a ton during that first week of our nightmare. Even my parents, to this day, still comment to me how impressed they were with all the food/flowers/gifts/support that were sent to us after Vienna died. In all of their 80 years, they never saw so much support after a tragedy.
Then, my husband contracted COVID-19 in March 2020. Since I was now very active on social media, and Mike was posting humorous/serious posts daily on Facebook about dealing with the symptoms of COVID-19, the love and support seemed to be endless from around the world. Groceries, meals, toys for the kids, gift cards, plants, and other gifts would show up multiple times a day.
All of these gestures, during our tough times, helped our family significantly. The support from the community was incredible and so needed! This area is super special with so many wonderful people.
What is your favorite restaurant in Monmouth County?
I don’t really have a favorite restaurant, but I do love Ethiopian and Thai food and Jersey Shore pizza! What’s easier to say, is my favorite beverage besides water….and that is Starbucks hot chocolate!
What is your favorite activity to do with your children in Monmouth County?
Before Vienna died, I really loved taking them to the Monmouth Museum, the beach, and 7 Presidents Park in Long Branch. Now, I am just trying to get back to taking them to more places in our county.
What are your Mom Goals?
I’d like to continue to teach my Vs to always do their best, take responsibility for their own actions, not to make excuses, and to be polite, strong, and to be leaders. I’d like to ensure they appreciate what they have, and one day take a trip to Nepal or another less-developed country to experience a completely different culture and way of life. As I teach them these skills, it is a constant reminder of my own personal self-improvement goals and the importance of life-long learning.
I would also like to climb another 14, 000 foot peak, and teach my Vs about the beauty of our national parks.
All this….besides of course educating the world about SUDC- Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood, and continuing my daughter Vienna’s legacy.