Members in Motion: Physical Therapist and Teen Oncology Patient Work Through Paralyzing Odds

Kristen Wagner found herself in physical therapy after she tore both of her ACL’s while playing basketball in high school. After her surgeries at Scottish Rite and physical therapy through Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Sports Medicine program, Kristen knew she wanted to be a physical therapist.

Years later, after graduating from Samford University in 2008 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Exercise Science, she earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Georgia State University in Atlanta in 2011. Wagner then returned to her roots when she began work as a PT, DPT at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta – Scottish Rite.

Wagner had always enjoyed working with children. While in college, she began volunteering at the Lakeshore Foundation teaching swimming lessons. She also aided in research involving activity and quality of life in individuals with disabilities. Pursuing a career in PT was the perfect combination of her strengths and interests.

Working with kids can tug on the heartstrings. “No kid should have to go through the things I see every day,” says Wagner. “You are looking at parents who never dreamed their perfect child would ever be facing something like this…their worst nightmare.”

Wagner then met Andrew “Drew” Wade. Drew is a 14-year-old who was diagnosed in December 2013 with Ewing Sarcoma, a type of bone cancer which was on his spinal vertebrae.
“Of all the patients I have worked with, Drew is one who sticks out most in my mind. I think Drew has a great story, and one that is not finished yet. Not only are he and his family wonderful to work with, they also are very complimentary of the experience they have had with Physical Therapy- both with myself and their “home town” outpatient physical therapist.

Drew had surgery to remove the tumor, but was left paralyzed. He began aggressive outpatient therapy in addition to radiation in his hometown of Columbus, Georgia. He was eventually transferred to the CIRU at Scottish Rite, where Wagner became his primary physical therapist.
When Wagner first met Drew, he only had a trace amount of movement in his lower extremities. Wagner started him on an aggressive program that would ultimately help Drew regain movement in his lower body over time.

“Drew met each new intervention with a slight eye-roll, laugh, and eventually fierce determination. He was so motivated to get his legs stronger, and with each new improvement his motivation only grew,” Wagner says. “At the time of Drew’s discharge from the CIRU, he was able to actively move every muscle group in both of his lower extremities, and demonstrate independence with his wheelchair mobility and functional mobility skills.”

Drew’s parents still keep Wagner updated on his progress in outpatient therapy. Physical therapists play a unique role in the treatment of oncology patients. For Drew, the focus of PT was the damage to his spinal cord. “Often times, physical therapist are working to reduce secondary symptoms like fatigue and debility, and always to maximize independence with functional mobility skills,” says Wagner. “As an oncology patient receives treatment and recovers, physical therapists work to help them return to their prior level of function or adapt to new ways of doing things they enjoy.”

Wagner is hopeful Drew will have a positive recovery as he continues his PT.
“There is no question that the absolute best part of my job is getting to see the dramatic improvement my patients make and the level of appreciation their families feel. It is so amazing to have a patient who comes to the CIRU unable to hold their head up and watch them walk out the door. Physical Therapy in the rehab setting is real, tangible change. I literally get to help patients and families get their life back.”

Interested in sharing your story or learning more about Members in Motion — a campaign dedicated to spotlighting members within the physical therapy community? Please send your name and contact information to – we want to hear about your most rewarding moments as a physical therapist.


One thought on “Members in Motion: Physical Therapist and Teen Oncology Patient Work Through Paralyzing Odds

  1. Steve PTA says:

    Wow! Keep sharing stories like this one!

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