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Hometown heroes: USF dean sees acceptance for all athletes

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 01:12 PM
TAMPA -

When someone first told Diane Straub she should compete in the Paralympic Games, she assumed the international competition was a lark, or at best a benevolent gesture offering a pat on the head to disabled people.

"Quite frankly, I thought it was a novelty," she says. "And then I saw the athletes."

That was in 1992, four years after she had lost her leg in a traffic accident. On that terrible day, Straub had hopped on a friend's motorcycle to take a break from studying for her last exam of the semester at Ohio State University. A car swerved in their lane, and everything changed – even if Straub was slow to accept it.

The future doctor had been a highly motivated student, holding on to a straight-A average and competing with the university's rowing crew.

She'd always been that way, a straight-A valedictorian in high school, holder of 11 athletic letters. Her childhood had been happy and charmed, and the loss of her leg just didn't fit.

If her athletic build adjusted well to managing a prosthetic limb, her mind refused to follow. After one summer of rehabilitation, she jumped back into her studies, taking not a regular load but a staggering 20 hours. She continued to try to compete in crew, even though superb balance is critical in the sport and she didn't have it anymore.

Straub wasn't being brave; she was simply determined not to accept what had happened, she says.

"I didn't picture myself as disabled," she says. "You can't be on the crew team if you are asymmetric. It was obvious it wouldn't work out, but I just couldn't let it go."

She had always loved to swim, and continued training her muscles for crew in the university pool. Her pool time coincided with the disabled swim team's; before her accident, she'd always felt sorry for the pitying looks the swimmers were given.

Then they asked her to join.

At first, she resisted. She wasn't one of them. But as they watched her slice through the water, the swimmers were agog. She didn't just need to be on the swim team, they said, she needed to try out for the upcoming Paralympics in Barcelona, Spain.

She did, and made the U.S. swim team competing in relays. The swimmers won a gold medal in Barcelona, then repeated the performance four years later in Atlanta.

"The athletes I met changed my life," Straub says. "They were so inspiring, constantly pushing themselves. My attitudes seemed so shallow, so juvenile.

"It gave me a sophisticated view of myself and helped me become more accepting of who I am."

After receiving advanced degrees from Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities, Straub, 44, became chief of adolescent medicine at University of South Florida Health, and a principal investigator of National Institutes of Health research on teenage HIV and AIDS. She and her husband, Andy Stephan, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, have two children, ages 11 and 7.

She believes her prosthesis gives her "street cred" with her teenage patients, but it's her friendly, nonjudgmental demeanor that encourages them to open up to her, says the woman Straub calls her mentor.

"Diane has a great rapport with young people because she treats them with such respect," says Patricia Emmanuel, chairwoman of pediatrics at USF health. "Young people can see through 'fake' very quickly."

Emmanuel says Straub has taught her how to better respond to adolescents. Straub also teaches USF medical school residents her skills.

"They get to see the care she takes of the teenagers, particularly those with chronic disease," Emmanuel says. "We love, love, love her here. She's just a joy, always so energetic and upbeat."

Straub also will work with the new Ybor Youth Clinic, a medical clinic for young people who might be uncomfortable in traditional health settings. Potential patients are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth, and those who are homeless or sexually exploited. It opens Oct. 15.

Many of Straub's patients also have eating disorders, and she says she empathizes with their despair over our culture's obsession with perfect beauty.

"My participation in the Paralympics gave me insight into stigma," she says. She has experienced it, as well. When she's in her physician's white coat, in pants that cover her leg, even walking with a slight limp, she is accepted and receives respect.

"But in shorts and my 'Terminator leg,' people treat me differently. One older lady recently asked me what I do. When I told her, she leaned over and said, 'Oh, honey, you know that's not true.'

"That kind of thing doesn't surprise me, but it does sadden me. We're a culture of looks-ism."

She says she is glad that Americans were able to watch Oscar Pistorius, a sprint runner from South Africa, on television during this year's London Olympics. Pistorius was the first double-leg amputee to participate in the games, and went on to earn one silver and two gold medals at the Paralympics held immediately afterward.

"I don't think anyone in the world could look at him and not realize he's a true athlete," she says.

Straub is comfortable in her skin these days. Not that long ago, she felt strange using handicapped parking, wanting to save the spaces for people who really need it.

"Then I thought, you know, I get sores on my leg when I have to walk a long way," she says. "I think it's OK if I use the space."


dkoehn@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8264

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