Sam Grewe competes during the Men's High Jump T63 Final on Day Eight of the IPC World Para Athletics Championships 2019 Dubai on November 14, 2019 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Competition is obviously important to high jumper Sam Grewe, but more importantly, the Paralympic medalist is driven to serve persons with disabilities.
Grewe is in his last year at the University of Notre Dame, and he is learning his experiences can serve as a tool to provide “empathy and solidarity” in the medical field. It was about eight years ago that Grewe himself was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.
“I think having gone through similar hardships like cancer treatments, amputations or long-term hospitalizations really sets a physician up to be prepared to (provide) compassionate care,” Grewe said. “They know the challenges they are going through; they know how vulnerable it is to be in the position of a patient.”
A 2009 study in the Disability and Health Journal found that persons with disabilities are less likely to feel heard and respected by their physicians. In 2005, only 2 percent of practicing physicians had disabilities.
Grewe is working to change that.
He started interning with the University of Michigan’s MDisability program this past January. The program was developed to improve the “inclusion of people with disabilities in healthcare research, education, practice and community engagement.”
Grewe was the co-leader on one project called “Staying Fit While Staying Put,” an eight-week exercise regimen designed to help disabled people work out at home. The week-by-week program features instructional videos showing different people with disabilities simulating the exercises.
“When COVID-19 sent people home for their lockdowns, people with disabilities were left with really no understanding or knowledge with how to stay fit,” Grewe said.
The Fighting Irish student also put together curriculum for public schools in the state of Michigan to include adaptive sports and recreation opportunities for students with disabilities.
“Just because someone uses a basketball (chair) or a prosthetic, doesn’t mean they should be sidelined during PE.”
Grewe does not yet know exactly where his interest in the medical field will take him, but he does know MDisability opened his eyes to the work that needs to be done.
“They really are able to provide a lot of disheartening insight into what medicine is like with a disability,” he said. “There’s just not people with disabilities as doctors. I’ve never had a doctor myself who has a disability.”
Grewe was able to work alongside such physicians at Michigan. As he did this work, he found himself reflecting on how his life has come full circle.
Two years after his cancer diagnosis, Grewe jumped into competitions with the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association’s Great Lakes Regional Games in Chicago. GLASA provides inclusive fitness and sport activities for those with physical or visual disabilities. It was Grewe’s first exposure to adaptive sports.
“To hear their stories of tragedy to triumph and to be able just to pull from their strength, their experience … gave me a full reclamation of my life that cancer and amputation had taken from me,” he said. “I even look back on it today and think, ‘Wow, that was really, really a turning point my life.’”
Six years later, Grewe has a silver medal from the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 in high jump and gold medals in three different world championships. He served as the keynote speaker for this year’s Great Lakes Games.
The Paralympian has taken younger athletes under his wing. That includes the young protege Ezra Frech, a high school sophomore in Los Angeles.
At the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru, Grewe won gold after setting a world record of 1.90 meters. Frech was right by his side on the podium stand. He won silver for a 1.74-meter jump.
“Stuff like that reminds me I really am on the opposite side of things right now,” Grewe said. “I do feel like it’s my duty to give back to the community that’s given so much to me.”
The Notre Dame fall semester started Aug. 10. Although classes have gone online due to COVID-19 concerns, Grewe is taking a class called Hallmarks of Cancer of Therapy, and he lives only a mile from the hospital where he received cancer treatment.
“There is a whole slew of people who have helped me along the way, but every once in a while, something will happen where either I just see myself in a patient I’m chatting with or I see myself in a young athlete that I’m working with,” he said. “It’s just a powerful image.”