Professor joins American Heart Association committee

Sandra Billinger achieved her dream and had been working as a dental assistant for more than five years. But she faced a drastic turn of events the day she left the office on lunch break and never returned.

Sandra Billinger, a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, was recently appointed to serve on a committee of the American Heart Association. Billinger's research is focused on how exercise affects cardiovascular function after a stroke.

Sandra Billinger, a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, was recently appointed to serve on a committee of the American Heart Association. Billinger's research is focused on how exercise affects cardiovascular function after a stroke. -Ryan Waggoner

That day, another driver ran a stop sign and hit Billinger’s car, injuring her enough to prevent her from performing her professional duties. The car accident that changed her life opened doors to new career accomplishments. The accident and resulting physical therapy inspired her, and she is now a research assistant and professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center’s department of physical therapy and rehabilitation science. She was also recently appointed to serve on the American Heart Association’s Stroke Rehabilitation, Prevention and Recovery Committee.

“I’m very excited and proud, but mostly honored to join the AHA committee,” Billinger said.

Billinger said her appointment to the group was particularly valuable because it not only helped people recover from stroke, but also allowed her to participate in developing ways to prevent strokes. In previous years, she has received a wide variety of professional accolades for her research, which is now aimed at assessing how vascular functions respond to exercise after stroke. Billinger is looking at how exercise might affect the fact that after stroke people tend to be weaker in one side of their body.

Though her current clinical population is composed primarily of stroke victims, Billinger said she also cared about the benefits of exercise for the population as a whole. She said the rise of obesity is of particular concern to her.

“I’d like to have a strong presence in the Exercise Is Medicine initiative to improve the well-being of Kansans,” Billinger said. “The benefits of physical activity are under realized or utilized by health care professionals.”

It is no surprise that Billinger is an avid athlete herself. She is now training for her first duathlon, which includes a 5K run and 30K bicycle ride, followed by another 5k run. Both her grandfather and father are in the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame for their own achievements, but Billinger took that influence to write her own history, helping others along the way.

At 28 years old, two years after the accident, her post-accident recovery led her to pursue her goal of becoming a physical therapist. She said not being allowed to run for two years was frustrating, but it also contributed to her appreciation of exercise as a new career choice.

“Before the accident, I exercised because I really enjoyed it. For me it was a hobby,” Billinger said. “Then it became something I needed to do to be healthy again.”

Lisa Stehno-Bittel, chairwoman of the department of physical therapy, said that though Billinger was an outstanding researcher, she was also a great professor.

Bethany Hurley, a senior in the physical therapy program, has taken “Exercise Physiology” and “Cardiopulmonary Functions” from Billinger and said she appreciated Billinger as a professor who surpassed her obligations.

“She went beyond being a professor and became more of a mentor to us,” Hurley said. “She was very inviting and really wanted us to get the most out of what she taught.”

Hurley said Billinger’s ability to take a negative situation and transform it into a positive was inspiring. She said life-changing events often led people — including herself — to the field of physical therapy.

“For me, it was when my grandma had a brain aneurism and I watched her go through physical therapy,” Hurley said. “After something like that you see things completely differently. You really want to help these people whose lives have been flipped upside down.”

Stehno-Bittel said Billinger’s appointment to the committee would allow her to help more people prevent and recover from stroke. She said that, in addition to Billinger’s specific interest in cardiovascular changes after stroke, her character also qualified her for the position.

“She’s hard-working, she’s a team player, she’s flexible in her approach to problems, she’s open to other points of view,” Stehno-Bittel said. “I can’t think of what more you would want from a person on a committee like this.”

For Billinger, who is now 42, it’s not the recent appointment to the AHA, the Dorothy Briggs Memorial Scientific Inquiry Award she received in 2009 or any of her other accomplishments that count. In fact, she rarely mentions them. Instead, she takes pride in her ability to help people in their recovery process.

“Her accomplishments are really quite astonishing, but she’s so modest, you may never even know that because she’ll never brag,” Stehno-Bittel said. “She’s still very early in her career and she’s already done so much.”

  • Updated Jul. 19, 2010 at 11:02 pm