Heather Tomko Is a Tireless Health Advocate

Heather Tomko is passionate about helping others. After graduating BHS in 2006, Tomko obtained a Bachelor's degree from CMU, where she double-majored in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering. Like many students, Tomko was at a crossroads after college. She explains, "After graduating from CMU, I knew that I didn't want to have a career in engineering, and I had enjoyed the research I had done during summer internships, so I started applying to research jobs in Pittsburgh. I had initially pursued biomedical engineering because I wanted a career that would help people, but I had no idea that public health existed as a field. I love that it lets me still fulfill my goal of helping people, but is the right mix of left brain/right brain for my personality." She is now pursuing a Master's of Public Health while working full-time as a Research Coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health in the Health Policy and Management department. Tomko enjoys the variety and challenge of her job. She shares, "A typical day in research can vary so much! Some days I may be working on a research study where I'm screening eligible patients or contacting them for follow-up calls. Sometimes my job is more data-management-focused, or sometimes I'm working on a statistical analysis. I also work on cost-effectiveness studies, where I analyze two different treatment options and compare their different costs and benefits."

Tomko knows first-hand how health policy can affect the lives of individuals. Heather was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a genetic, neuromuscular disease. Tomko explains, "I've never been able to walk, and I've used a power wheelchair for my whole life. I have general, overall muscle weakness—so not only can I not walk, but I also can't lift or hold heavy things, and my lungs are also weaker. It really affects all parts of my body." Misconceptions about individuals with disabilities abound. Tomko recently started a blog, The Heather Report, to give others a peek into her life living with SMA. Individuals may be well-meaning, but misguided. Tomko shares, "I wish that people focused more on the similarities between our lives, and I wish they didn't assume that I'm mentally disabled just because I'm in a wheelchair. I think a lot of times, people struggle to see past the wheelchair, and that's difficult for me because I really try not to let my disability define me!" People overlook the challenges that daily life can present to individuals with mobility constraints, "I think it's hard for people to realize how having SMA can affect so many parts of my life—it's not just about being in a wheelchair. And I'd like people to look around more and see how many things are still inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs!"

Tomko is still a proud resident of Whitehall. You can read her blog at http://www.theheatherreport.com/

picture of Heather Tomko