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The Journals are the premier publications for high-quality, hyperlocal news and advertising in Monmouth County, New Jersey

May 20, 2020

Holmdel Sports Doctor Shares Heartbreaking Yet Uplifting Pandemic Experience

By Shanna O'Mara

Dr. Denise Wunderler understands the pressure of being a physician, and the stress that comes with surviving the death of a child. She understands that more now than ever.

Wunderler is a board-certified sports medicine physician, Fellow of the American Osteopathic Academy of Sports Medicine, USA Volleyball/FIVB international team physician, founder and president of their family’s 501c3 nonprofit Team Vienna 4 SUDC (Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood) Awareness Inc., co-founder of The SUDC Coalition, community volunteer, loving wife and mother of three. She and husband Dr. Mike Savino, a board-certified emergency medicine physician and Army war hero, are parents to a 10- and 7-year-old here on Earth, and their youngest Vienna, who passed away unexpectedly in 2017 of SUDC at the age of 2.

“Unfortunately, my husband cannot be close to us since he is on the frontlines,” Wunderler said.

Dr. Mike Savino

Savino self-quarantined for a week mid-March to protect his family since he knew he could have been exposed to the virus while working. Sure enough, his chest began to feel tight, and a fever set in. Wunderler said her husband stayed home sick for 12 days, not wanting to take away resources from other sick individuals, but as his breathing became more labored, he was admitted to Jersey Shore University Medical Center. Wunderler’s stress level soared, however, since coping with Vienna’s unexpected death, she has been able to channel the pressure and stress and take care of business.

Because New Jersey hospitals currently do not allow visitors, Wunderler was unable to see her husband while he received treatment that week. Luckily, Savino was not placed on a ventilator, so he was able to send text message updates to his family. He also made time to document his recovery on Facebook.

Displaying brutal honesty and a refreshing sense of humor, Savino posted day-by-day recaps of symptoms he experienced, medications he tried, progress he made and even amusing details of how he “got winded eating a hospital turkey sandwich.”

Wunderler said she admired her husband’s ability to stay positive and bring smiles to the faces of those worried about him. Well-wishers were rooting for him from as far away as Pakistan and Australia.

“Many are very inspired by him, and he has received several messages from supporters that he gives them hope,” she said. “Everyone in the Northeast especially needs that right now. Mike makes people laugh and cry at the same time with his humorous yet serious posts.”

Savino was ultimately discharged from the hospital on April 11.

“First stop was to get some Jersey Shore pizza,” Wunderler said. “Then we arrived home to a hero’s surprise welcome parade of neighbors and friends who lined the street – honking horns, holding signs, cheering. Since we weren’t exactly sure when he would get discharged, his welcome home was organized last minute by my text to a few friends when I was leaving to get him. Within one hour, 25 cars were at our house. Some traveled 30 minutes and still made it. It was really amazing how quickly everyone mobilized to get here in time!”

Dr. Denise Wunderler and Dr. Mike Savino

Wunderler said she and her children hugged Savino for the first time in a month when he came home from the hospital, but when her husband returned to work, close contact was restricted again.

“When there is a frontlines physician in the family, the family self-isolation is different than when there is not,” she said.

Many families have been staying at home together, filling their days with schoolwork, cooking, games and Zoom calls with friends. Wunderler said she and the kids have been kept at a safe distance from Dad, and they are all forced to wear masks indoors to lessen the chance of spreading any germs or a different strain of the virus. Wunderler has been working with the kids on their academics, teaching them about patience, utilizing their help around the house and instilling the idea that people all do better when they work as a team. She also teaches them about how to make the most of a less-than-desirable situation, and that complaining about it only distracts from our focus.

“‘When else during our lifetime, will we be forced to stay at home?’ she asks the kids. “‘Let’s make the best of it.’”

Still, she finds time to communicate with others about the pandemic.

“I am connecting with doctors in other locations across the country, discussing by phone/text/email about COVID-19 treatments,” she said. “It seems there’s more collaboration these days among healthcare workers discussing what is working in their area and what is not.”

She added, “While others were helping me with treatment advice/options, etc. when Mike was really sick and in the hospital, now I am able to help others, field questions, and believe it or not, help family (some who I’ve never met) from other states connect with their hospitalized family member in New Jersey.”

Wunderler points this out because so many loved ones are left to rely on doctor updates rather than talking directly to the patient. With visitation prohibited and communication limited for those on ventilators, many devoted physicians have taken the time to contact family members via Facetime or Zoom so that they may talk to – or even say goodbye – to their ill kin.

“I have incredible respect and admiration for my husband and all the frontline workers taking care of patients during this pandemic,” Wunderler said. “They are going to work and literally putting their lives on the line for strangers. It goes back to the innate reasons we all went into medicine – to take care of others, educate and do our best for the human race.”

To learn about their family’s 501c3 nonprofit Team Vienna 4 SUDC Awareness and SUDC, visit TeamViennaSUDC.org and SUDCcoalition.com.