This past week, the Muhlenberg women’s basketball team successfully completed a slam dunk. While achieving many great things so far this season, the squad carries that with them beyond the court. Always looking for ways to engage with the world around them as well as with the Muhlenberg community at large, the ladies once again found an incredible opportunity to work alongside Dr. Denise Wunderler ‘94.
A former Muhlenberg basketball player herself, Dr. Wunderler, now working as a physician for USA Volleyball, also works to raise awareness for SUDC, or Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood, which all spurred from a shocking and saddening family tragedy.
On Nov. 12, 2017, Wuderler and her husband lost their healthy two-year-old daughter, Vienna Carly Savino, to SUDC. Not until this tragic moment did the two learn what SUDC was.
Ever since that day, Dr. Wunderler has been passionate about raising awareness of this phenomenon, for even though SUDC affects children from ages one to 18 years of age and is the fifth leading cause of death among one to four year olds, it receives very little attention from the medical community.
Wunderler’s initiative came to life when she founded “Team Vienna 4 SUDC Awareness Inc” on Jan. 19, 2019, what would have been Vienna’s fourth birthday. Along with enhancing awareness, the goal is to increase research efforts, with the hopes of ultimately unearthing the causes as well as preventative measures so no family has to suffer the loss of their child.
Fortunately for the Mules, getting involved with the Dr. Wunderler’s project fell right into their laps when she reached out to Coach Ronald Rohn, and the stars of Muhlenberg women’s basketball are certainly glad she did.
“The Women’s basketball community for Muhlenberg is very tight-knit and like one big family,” said forward Madison Kirchofer ‘20, “so when we heard that Dr. Wunderler wanted to share her message with us and the community at our game last Saturday, we were very willing to help in any way we could and proud to represent such a powerful cause.”
For guard Ashley Polera ‘20, taking this moment to step back from the hardwood to help a former player was truly special. “This was an eye-opening and very fulfilling initiative for our team to get involved with. Our program is about a lot more than just the performance we have on the court … [it is also about] the positive impact we can make in the community and other people’s lives off the court,“ Polera said.
The sport of basketball, even at a school as small as Muhlenberg, is as intense as it comes. However, Kirchofer realizes that the sport that the team as well as Dr. Wunderler love, has a much bigger role. “To take a moment and step away from the court and realize that us playing basketball could be so much more than just a game, but [could also be] a way to help spread awareness for a condition that has such little research and recognition was something that our team was extremely lucky and grateful to be a part of,” Kirchofer said.
The experiences of Dr. Wunderler and even the memory of Vienna has taught Polera and the entire team some valuable lessons. “You have to live life in the moment and cherish the people around you while you still have them,” Polera summed up. “Life works in very unexplained and unexpected ways. The little issues we deal with on a day-to-day basis are so minuscule in the grand scheme of things.”
Prior to Saturday’s tip-off with Gettysburg, Dr. Wunderler shared powerful words with Kirchofer and the rest of the group. “Play for ourselves, play for our teammates and play for Vienna, because she will never have the chance,” Kirchofer remembered.
“I was honored to meet Dr. Wunderler, who is one of the strongest and most inspiring women I have ever met,” Kirchofer further reflected.
As the fight to find answers for SUDC continues, so too does the mission of Dr. Wunderler with ‘Berg basketball always their assist.