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Life Beyond Country School

Allison Kessler Vear ’00 Receives New Canaan Country School Alumni Award

Allison Kessler Vear ’00 was presented with the 2019 New Canaan Country School Alumni Award on the school’s campus May 17. Allison is an attending physician at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a leading rehabilitation hospital in Chicago, where she specializes in spinal cord injury medicine. Paralyzed from the waist down since the age of 15, Allison is also an Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. View video presentation. 
 
 
“Allison is a remarkable woman, doctor, professor, wife, mother, athlete and role model for others,” said Head of School Aaron Cooper. “Through sheer resilience and strength of character, she has lived life on her own terms, refusing to allow her spinal cord injury to sideline or define her. Her dedication to medicine and passion for helping others with similar injuries is exemplary.
 
The Alumni Award is presented each year to honor an alumna or alumnus who best embodies the statement from the school’s mission, “New Canaan Country School inspires students to be lifelong learners with the courage and confidence to make a positive contribution to the world.”
 
While on campus, Allison spoke to Middle and Upper School students (grades 5-9) about her childhood memories, many of which remain deeply intertwined with her Country School experience. She also reflected upon the foundational skills she acquired during her nine-year tenure, and how they sustained her through both adversity and triumph in the years that followed.
 
“What’s fantastic about my Country School memories, is that they encompass so many different activities that my formative years were built upon. Not only am I constantly reminded of the community to which I belonged, it helped shape who I am,” said Allison.
 
Growing up with older brothers, Eric ’88, Justin ’91, Timothy ’95, and physician parents, John and Marilyn, in their Wing Road home, she considered the Country School campus her backyard. She recalled being thrilled when she was finally old enough to join the parade of Kesslers as they made their daily troop to and from the back of the house, over the low stonewall, past the football field, the red barns and to their various classrooms.
 
Many of Country School’s traditions still hold a place of prominence in her childhood memories. She shared that she particularly enjoyed maple syruping, sledding down the double hills behind the Welles Lower School Building, taking piano lessons on the third floor of the main building, the Mummer’s play, cozying up with a book in the Lower School library’s claw-foot “bathtub” and the Medieval Faire.
 
A talented, multi-sport athlete, she still has a wooden lacrosse stick from her Upper School days and keeps it as a reminder of the valuable lessons she learned. “Everyone was getting the new titanium sticks at the time, but our coach, Ms. [Betsy] Hulme, believed that you need simple tools to become good at fundamental skills. I still believe that,” she added.
 
Allison also fondly recalls and now values the time she spent in woodshop. “I wasn’t so good at art, but I was good at working with my hands and taking my time building things. As a rehab doctor, I work with my hands all day with my patients.”
 
It was at Country School, Allison says, that she learned the power of community early on.
 
“I was always encouraged to think about how I could contribute to my school community. How could I build it up and make it a better place? I’ve brought that mindset to every community I’ve been a part of since.”
 
Following Country School, Allison attended Choate Rosemary Hall. “During Christmas vacation of my sophomore year, I was in the accident which caused me to have a spinal cord injury leaving my legs paralyzed,” she shared. “It is at times of great stress that the core values we learn in childhood help us face seemingly overwhelming problems, and I always will be grateful to NCCS for inspiring me with the courage and confidence to deal with my new situation.”
 
Returning to Choate in a wheelchair, she resolved to stay mentally and physically active, re-engage in her classroom studies, find her groove in the school community and re-assess her passion for team sports.
 
“Sports and being a part of a team was so central to my identity that I was determined to find a new athletic community to which I could belong,” she explained. “Ultimately, I became the coxswain for the women’s varsity crew team.”
 
Allison later attended Harvard - where she continued as a cox on the crew team - and earned a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, studying biomedicine and society. She went on to medical school at Northwestern University to become a physiatrist, a physician who practices physical medicine and rehabilitation. While in Chicago, she met her husband, Ben Vear, on a club rowing team, and they are now the proud parents of two-year-old daughter, Brooke.
 
She uses her life experience on a daily basis as a way to connect and listen to her patients. “I want them to know I hear them. I know it isn’t easy, and it will be an ongoing struggle. Being a confident, good doctor is a way to lead them.”
 
She relates physiatry to her time as a coxswain.
 
“Good care requires a great team and my job is to be a team leader and steer the boat. It takes all of us to cross the finish line.”
 
As a professor, Allison is excited about taking on a role that will challenge her and help her become a leader in her field.
 
“In academic medicine, I have to keep up-to-date on recent advancements and am constantly learning and growing,” she says.  
 
Allison concluded her remarks with advice. “There isn’t one answer to how you can overcome tragedy or hardship in your life. Resilience is a culmination of attributes and learning. Most of all it requires the very same personal attributes that are at the core of the NCCS mission statement – the courage and confidence to make a positive contribution to the world no matter what may stand in your way. Courage is only meaningful when we are faced with adversity.”
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