Miss Philadelphia aspires to surgical career

Posted: April 01, 2008

Standing on a stage in a heavily beaded evening dress, this year's soon-to-be-crowned Miss Philadelphia could only think of one thing: "Oh, my gosh! My feet are killing me!"

Brintha Vasagar doesn't have much use for what she calls "six-inch heels." As a third-year medical student at Ross University School of Medicine in Miami, she said she's more at ease in an operating room than under the glare of pageant spotlights.

The Hatfield native was named Miss Philadelphia 2008 on Saturday night, prevailing over 15 other contestants from Philadelphia, Montgomery and Delaware Counties. She won $10,000.

Vasagar, 24, is not exactly an old pro in the pageant world. Unlike many contest queens with a lifetime of experiences under their one-piece bathing suits, Vasagar competed in her first pageant in 2005. And after a disappointing run for Miss District of Columbia in 2006, Vasagar thought she'd never enter another one.

But tuition bills were mounting at Ross, where she has another year and a half of school before she graduates.

"I thought I could use a little scholarship money," she said.

With a stunning smile and a commitment to volunteerism, Vasagar wowed the sold-out crowd and panel of judges at Drexel University's Mandell Theatre.

The raven-haired Vasagar said she has dreamed of becoming a surgeon since she was 5.

"Nobody in my family is a doctor, but that's what I've always wanted to be," she said. "I like the 'fixing people' aspect of the job."

Before she was accepted to Ross - while still an undergraduate at Georgetown University - her emergency medical skills were seriously tested during a trip to Sri Lanka in 2004 to visit the birthplace of her parents.

She only had been there a week when, on Dec. 26, an undersea earthquake rocked South Asia, triggering the deadliest series of tsunamis in recorded history.

Floods killed 270,000 in the region. Seventy thousand perished in Sri Lanka. Stranded in a remote corner of the island nation, Vasagar cut short her vacation and volunteered to help.

"I didn't have any medical training. There were no doctors on the scene," Vasagar said. "I did what I could. I worked in the camps."

"It was scary," she said. "There were so many bodies festering. Mass graves were dug. Nobody knew how bad it really was because all communications were down."

When Vasagar returned to the United States, she addressed Congress and the United Nations. Senators asked how they could help.

She organized a gala in Washington and raised $5,000 for tsunami relief.

She sent out an e-mail to friends asking them to donate, and more important, not to forget what had happened to the people of Sri Lanka.

"It was hard to let go of what I had seen," she said.

The friends relayed the e-mail to other friends. It spread around the world. A bride-to-be received a copy and asked all her wedding guests to donate rather than buy wedding presents.

In the end, Vasagar's e-mail was credited by relief workers with raising almost $500,000.

As Miss Philadelphia, Vasagar hopes to use the power of her crown to help motivate others to volunteer for worthy causes. When she competes in the Miss Pennsylvania pageant July 16, she'll run on a platform dubbed "G.I.V.E.," for "Get Involved, Volunteer in Education."

"When people, especially kids, volunteer, they build their sense of self-worth," she said. "They become confident, they become role models, they give back to the community and improve themselves."

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or samwood@phillynews.com.

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