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Will Sgrignoli: From Navy physical therapist to civilian medical student

Date: Monday, August 14, 2023

Hometown: Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania 

Education: University of Pittsburgh/Army-Baylor University 

Will Sgrignoli turned 30 the same month he started medical school. But that’s not the only thing that makes his path to medicine look a little different from those of his classmates; he is also pivoting from a career as a Navy physical therapist. 

Sgrignoli’s father and grandfather served in the Air Force, and he has a brother in the Army. In 2015, Sgrignoli followed in the footsteps of his military family and commissioned into the Navy, where he entered an active-duty training program accredited by Baylor University to become a physical therapist.  

“All of our training was in a military context, because we were expected to be treating active-duty service members in austere environments,” he says. “You’re treating people that are conducting missions, jumping out of airplanes, lugging heavy equipment everywhere. We needed to be skilled at addressing these distinct patient populations.” 

He earned a doctorate in physical therapy in 2018, and his first duty station was in South Carolina, treating a patient population of Marine recruits.  

“I got to work alongside some incredible docs,” he says. “Talking to all of them, I became really interested in their work. I was so inspired by all the people I worked with that I wanted to join them.”   

After a deployment in Djibouti—during which he was also studying for the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT—and a two-and-a-half-year tour in Japan, he is now returning to the U.S. to wrap up his eight-year commitment to the Navy and begin his next chapter. 

“I loved my time abroad,” he says, “I learned a ton, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing like home. It feels great to be back. I’m not from Iowa, but I’m already happy to call this place my home.” 

Though he is grateful for his time in the Navy, he plans to serve as a civilian physician in the next stage of his career.  

“It’s bittersweet,” Sgrignoli says. “I look back on my Navy physical therapy career fondly. But my wife, who’s also a Navy physical therapist, also comes from a military family, so we’ve both spent our whole lives moving around. Some stability will be nice." 

Family portrait of Will Sgrignoli with his wife Cherilyn and their two dogs.

He hopes he can use his experience as a service member to provide more informed care for veterans someday, perhaps in a Veterans Affairs hospital. Though his PT experience lends itself to certain medical specialties, Sgrignoli wants to keep an open mind. He has discussed the transition with his three brothers, two of whom are physicians—one in ophthalmology and one in oncology. 

Ophthalmology seems really interesting, just from shadowing my brother,” he says. “But from my musculoskeletal background, there’s always a little bit of me that feels drawn to sports medicine or ortho.” 

Even if his choice of specialty takes him in a different direction, he believes his PT experience will make him a more rounded team member in any health care setting. 

"My experience as a physical therapist is that we always had the best patient outcomes when we had a really good relationship with ortho and sports medicine,” he says. “Having that understanding of how to communicate and interact on a multidisciplinary health care team will pay huge dividends for treating patients.” 

Above all, he’s bringing an uncommon perspective to his medical education that he thinks will benefit not just himself but also his classmates and future patients. 

"In the military, you truly get to know people from all walks of life,” Sgrignoli says. “When I was the lead physical therapist at Marine Corps Recruiting Depot, we had techs from all different educational backgrounds, geographic affiliations, ethnicities—all working as one team. That’s something that everyone should get to experience, even if you aren’t in the military.” 

If you do well on an exam, that’s cool, but it’s even cooler when you can drive home knowing you made a patient’s life better that day.

Sgrignoli's life experience has also taught him how to maintain a sense of perspective in tough times. 

I’ve worked with patients who have suffered a traumatic injury and can’t walk anymore,” he says. “When I was on deployment, I was away from my wife and my family for nine months. A lot of the life experiences I have had showed me that you could have much bigger problems than having to study. I am so grateful to be in this position.” 

Sgrignoli and his wife, Cherilyn, are looking forward to their time in Iowa. 

“I was fortunate during the application process to be able to deliberate on where I wanted to go,” he says. “But I loved my interview here. It’s corny, but it was one of those situations where when something feels right, you know it’s right." 

As for the four years ahead, he is most looking forward to getting the chance to build relationships with patients again. 

“While I am excited about the sciences, and that material is important, I am most excited about getting into the clinic and interacting with patients again,” Sgrignoli says. “If you do well on an exam, that’s cool, but it’s even cooler when you can drive home knowing you made a patient’s life better that day.”