Nursing scholarship keeps memory of Bob Wheeler's late wife, Tracey, alive, and helps students following in her footsteps.
On Oct. 30, 2007, Tracey Irene Wheeler passed away of sudden cardiac death, at home in her backyard. A registered nurse who specialized in critical care, burn care and emergency medicine, Wheeler, 45, left her two children, Haley and Jackson, and her husband of 18 years, Robert (Bob), wondering how they could go on.
No matter where the Wheelers lived—first in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and then, raising their kids, in the Manlius-Fayetteville area outside Syracuse—Tracey had been the life force of their family and her large network of friends.
She is also deeply missed by a devoted circle of former patients, clients and colleagues. In fact, Bob says, she had a remarkable ability to make friends wherever she went. “She was able to draw people in immediately … she had this presence,” he says.
Bob grew up outside Utica in Whitesboro, N.Y. An avid sports fan, he studied physical therapy at UB, playing Division III football there as a freshman before switching to lacrosse. He graduated with an exercise science degree from the School of Public Health and Health Professions.
Bob’s intentions to work in rehab hit two permanent detours when he began working at a health club near UB’s North Campus. He met Tracey, a fellow trainer and fitness buff, during his first week, and they clicked. So much so, she took a nutrition class at UB in part so she and Bob could spend more time together.
At the club, Bob also met his first professional mentor who eventually recruited him into pharmaceutical sales. He credits UB’s “intense” training, including courses in physiology and gross anatomy, as the foundation he used to connect to physicians over the years. “Doctors used to ask if I was a pharmacist.”
Bob joined his mentor’s pharma startup soon after graduation, and two years later he and Tracey married. With an associate nursing degree from Sisters of Charity Hospital in Buffalo, she took on several challenging positions at Sisters, Westchester Medical Center Trauma and Burn Center in the Hudson Valley, and at an ER in Poughkeepsie.
Meanwhile, Bob moved into regional and then institutional sales management at pharma firms including Johnson & Johnson, Aventis and most recently AbbVie.
Bob talks about Tracey with awe, gratitude and humor. He notes her determination to get an education, which led her out of her large, tight-knit family’s economically depressed neighborhood on Buffalo’s East Side. He still laughs out loud at how her fun-loving, passionate personality helped her more reserved, career-focused husband “lighten up” and endeared her to her co-workers.
“A lot of brilliant doctors don’t always deliver great care because they don’t connect to the patient and help them open up,” he explains. “Tracey was really good at that.” She especially enjoyed working at the burn center, often moonlighting in home care to finish treatments and forming close relationships with her patients and their families.
A few years after Tracey died, Bob worked briefly in development at Syracuse University between pharma jobs. A love of philanthropy began to take root in his memories of her. “I like getting involved in things I think will make the world a better place,” he says.
In 2015, Bob established the Tracey I. Wheeler Scholarship, an endowed fund at the UB School of Nursing. Since his initial $25,000, he has generously made additional donations totaling $21,500 and has pledged $100,000 more as a bequest.
The scholarship provides annual tuition support to undergraduate nursing students, focusing on those like Tracey coming from disadvantaged Buffalo neighborhoods, or who otherwise may need extra financial help.
“As I get older, I’ve become more aware of the inequities in society,” Bob says. “I can appreciate how people like Tracey pull themselves up from poverty to get an education.”
Bob also wanted to pay tribute to Tracey as an all-around caregiver, not only as a nurse, but as a devoted mother. “I wanted something longer term that would keep her name out there in perpetuity, and that the kids could support once I’m gone,” he says of his son, who is studying to be a geologist, and of his daughter, now a nurse following in her mother’s footsteps. “I’m so proud of who they are, and our family owes so much of that to Tracey.”
Published September 29, 2021