Georgetown University Medical Center Assistant Professor Sandra Welner died Saturday, Oct. 20 at Washington Hospital Center after suffering third degree burns from a fire in her Silver Spring home Oct. 8.

Welner, 43, a Pittsburgh native, suffered from neurological disabilities after a 1987 treatment for a routine cardiac irregularity left her with neurological damage. The damage affected her coordination and rendered her handicapped with limited mobility. She had been an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Georgetown since the early 1990s.

The fire started around 11:20 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 8, after Welner, who lived alone, tried to light a candle in her home on 16th Street. The flame from the candle came into contact with her loose clothing starting the fire, Fire Department Spokesman Pete Piringer said.

Neighbors Tom Sellwood and Julia Novina (LAW ’97) heard Welner’s yells which they at first thought were from a loud TV or party.

“We entered the hallway to better determine where the screams were coming from, and heard the screams were coming from Apt. 707, Sandy’s apartment, which is diagonally across the hall from our apartment,” Sellwood said.

After smelling the smoke in their apartment building hallway, Novina immediately called 911, while Sellwood kicked down the door of Welner’s apartment. Inside they found Welner on the ground in the kitchen where there appeared to be more flames on the floor. After first extinguishing the fire, they wrapped Welner in a blanket and comforted her until medical personnel arrived on the scene.

“It was the action of her neighbors that initially saved her life,” Piringer said. “She suffered third degree burns on over 70 percent of her body.”

She was then taken to Washington Hospital Center. Realizing that Welner had no family in the area, Sellwood and Novina stayed with her throughout the night and visited her frequently at the hospital.

“As Julia and I have observed her in the time we have been her neighbor . she can hold herself upright and walk for short distances without support,” said Sellwood. Sellwood and Novina added that Welner was always a friendly neighbor. Although they did not know her well, they were acquaintances and said when they met her in the hallway they always had pleasant conversations with her.

The burns were severe enough that Sellwood and Novina went back to Welner’s apartment to contact any friends she might have in the area.

Welner moved to the Washington area in 1992 where she became an advocate for better gynecological care for women. She helped start primary care programs for women with disabilities at Washington Hospital Center and the National Rehabilitation Hospital. More recently she had been working on a medical text about women with disabilities.

Welner, above all, wanted patients to feel more independent in seeking medical care. She invented an adjustable pelvic-examination table that could be lowered to 20 inches above the floor, easing a patient’s access to and from a wheelchair. According to The Washington Post, she called the device, now used nationwide, the Universally Accessible Examination Table.

“Providers are often not sure what to do with people with disabilities,” she told a Washington Post interviewer last year. “They’re afraid to do the wrong thing so they do nothing, which is also the wrong thing.”

Welner was a graduate of Lehigh University and the Medical College of Pennsylvania. In Washington, she was a prominent member of several Jewish community organizations. “Even though she was extremely handicapped, she always came to rehearsals. She loved music, singing,” Cantor Aaron Marcus of the Keshet Chorale of the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Chorus said. Welner was a soprano in the chorus. “She was persistent and determined . a regular member,” Cantor Marcus continued. Cantor arcus also added that he is dedicating the Dec. 9 Kennedy Center performance the Chorale has scheduled in the memory of Welner.

The same thoughts of a determined, self-reliant and focused woman were shared by Rabbi Wohlberg of the ADAS Israel Congregation where Welner was also a member and led one of the services. “Her death was a big loss to all the people that knew her and a terrible tragedy to her family,” Rabbi Wohlerg said.

She was also a consultant to state public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services.

In 1994, Welner was given the Clinical Service Award of the Society for the Advancement of Women’s Health Research.

According to Novina, Welner’s funeral was held last week in Pittsburgh, and there will be a memorial service set up by Welner’s friends in the D.C. area within the next 30 days.

The memorial service is intended as a way for neighbors, friends and colleagues of Welner’s to be notified of the incident and to learn of her accomplishments.

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