In 1998, Deborah Wingler’s 6-year-old daughter was given 72 hours to live.

In an instant Wingler’s life changed, and the mother of two quickly found herself confined within the sterile walls of an Arizona hospital.

Her daughter had an aggressive nasopharyngeal cancer — a cancer found in the head and neck — and a portion of the tumor was pushing on her brain. There was no way to surgically remove it. She was faced with an unfathomable decision: inject her daughter’s central nervous system with radical chemotherapy along with placing a tracheotomy into her neck to ensure she would continue breathing – or lose her.

The choice was clear.

In that moment, Wingler’s experience with health care, which has spanned two decades, began — but so did her journey to a Ph.D. And this August, she will walk across the stage in Littlejohn Coliseum as part the 50th class of graduates from Clemson University’s Architecture + Health program.

Whitewashed walls

For the first year and a half after receiving her daughter’s diagnosis, Wingler became familiar with bland, whitewashed infirmary walls. The hospital became her second home. In that cold, confined space, she became her daughter’s biggest advocate, doing everything in her power to keep her daughter alive.

“We almost lost her, literally, every single day,” she recalled. “Whether it was due to issues with her blood count, infections — you name it. Her treatment felt like an awful spiral that went around and around with no end in sight.”

It’s this intimate knowledge and understanding – plus her innate desire to bring beauty into the world – that’s transformed Wingler into a passionate patient advocate. And while this experience didn’t lead her directly into health care, she uses it to fuel what is now her passion as a professional.

“I actually understand what it is like to be that individual who is reeling in the moment of diagosis like my daughter’s. You’re struggling to figure out what’s next, make major medical decisions that are life-changing and are in an imposing environment that doesn’t support one’s physical or emotional well-being.”

Beating the odds

This year will mark Wingler’s daughter’s 20 anniversary of being-tumor free. And even though her tireless hours in the hospital by her daughter’s side are behind her, her experience with health care isn’t.

Deborah Wingler poses for a photo in Lee Hall on Clemson's campus.

Deborah Wingler
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

“Together, we have gone through and lived 100 percent of the health care experience. From diagnosis and debilitating treatment to rehabilitation and the many challenges of survivorship. These experiences have made me keenly aware of the challenges in health care that impact us all in a profoundly personal way.”

As a doctoral student at Clemson, Wingler has worked to reimagine health care and the hospital rooms of the future. She’s played a role in multiple projects — including Clemson’s Center for Health Facilities Design and Testing’s operating room research — and her thesis focused on the physiological and psychological impact design has on children and parents during the ambulatory surgery process.

“Deborah’s personal experiences and journey have given her a deep understanding of the problems in health care and a perspective about the critical role of the built environment in addressing those problems,” said Anjali Joseph, the Spartanburg Regional Health System Endowed Chair in Architecture + Health Design and director of the Center for Health Facilities Design and Testing. “Both as an advocate, researcher and as a designer – she has the ability to give voice to the issues that many of us experience, and then to take an active role in devising and testing solutions to bring about change.”

Students in the Architecture + Health program study how architectural environments impact health and how to create architectural settings that support the health and well-being of individuals and larger populations.

A new calling

After helping her daughter rehabilitate from the treatments that ultimately saved her life, Wingler knew it was time to follow her passion. No longer could she look at DNA through the microscope lens that her chemistry degree offered. Instead, she wanted to help bring beauty into the world.

Wingler thought she wanted to leave health care behind and decided to pursue her master’s in architecture at Arizona State University. Within months of starting, she was recruited into its design program for Healthcare and Healing Environments.

Beauty began to take shape for her in a different form: fulfillment. She began to realize that she could truly make a difference in the lives of others.

“While I was pursuing my master’s, I began working with Adelante Health Care as their Pebble Project Coordinator, helping them to embody an emerging model of care through the physical health care environment. It was a fantastic experience. And that’s when I met Anjali.”

An industry insider, scholar and Clemson professor, Joseph has been working to revolutionize health care through architecture for more than a decade.

“Deborah’s passion for health care along with the fact that she had prior experience as a researcher working in a health care organization made her a great fit for the Ph.D. program,” Joseph said.

At first, Wingler was hesitant. After launching her own health care design research consultancy, pursuing a doctoral education was not something she was considering.

“When Anjali asked me, I thought, ‘No. My passion is practice not academia.’ However, I’d been approached by several major universities in the country to get my Ph.D. around the same time, and I decided I should consider Clemson. What I can tell you today is that it was the best thing for me,” she said.

Health care architects

On Aug. 10, Wingler will receive her Ph.D. in Planning, Design and the Built Environment with a focus in Architecture + Health. Wingler, along with the program’s numerous other graduates, exemplify what the visionary founder of Architecture + Health envisioned more than 50 years ago.

Created in 1968 by Clemson architecture professor George Means Jr. (1920-2005), Architecture + Health has grown to become a leading program and remains the country’s most structured and comprehensive professional degree of its kind.

Five decades later, director David Allison remains committed to fulfilling Means’ vision of educating students to study the relationship between architecture, human health and well-being. In addition to being the program director, Allison has consistently been recognized by Healthcare Design Magazine and Design Intelligence magazine for his work in health care design and education.

“One thing that sets the Clemson Architecture + Health program apart is that at its core is one of the most respected master’s programs of its kind in the country, and that is largely due to David’s commitment and dedication. That, coupled with Anjali and Dina Battisto’s research expertise, the program is able to provide a holistic and comprehensive experience for master’s and doctoral students that integrates research into the health care design process at the highest degree,” Wingler said.

With more than 225 graduates around the world, Architecture + Health’s influence on the design of health care facilities is indisputable. Although many alumni go on to work for leading architectural firms across the globe, Wingler won’t need to pack her bags quite yet.

Following graduation, Wingler will remain at Clemson as a research assistant professor. She will continue examining child and parent perceptions and anxiety levels as they relate to design during the ambulatory surgical process based on whether the child undergoes anesthetic induction in an induction room or the operating theater. Evidence from her studies is currently being incorporated into the design of Seattle Children’s Hospital’s new operating room expansion, which is where her initial research was conducted.

“Deborah’s dissertation work broke new ground by showing that children undergoing anesthetic induction outside the OR experience significantly less anxiety than children receiving induction in the OR,” Joseph said. “This work will undoubtedly have an impact on clinical and design practice in future years.”

Wingler will also continue working with Joseph and the Center for Health Facilities Design and Testing. The center, which was formed through a partnership with the Medical University of South Carolina and a generous donation from the Spartanburg Regional Health System, is examining safety and effectiveness in operating rooms. A full-scale mockup is being tested at the Clemson Design Center in Charleston to determine how design innovations in the operating room might improve patient safety and clinical effectiveness for all.

This forward-thinking work and students like Wingler fulfill the vision George C. Means Jr. had for the program, and demonstrate the impact Clemson and Architecture + Health has had on health care in the state, the nation and the world over the past 50 years – and the impact it will continue to have in the future.