By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Walking across the stage last month at the RiverCenter as one of 313 graduates of St. Ambrose University was a huge accomplishment for Denise Hintermeister. “I worked very hard for it.”
Her journey to a college degree took many twists and turns from high school until now. With the help of her godchild, April Kaiser (also a St. Ambrose graduate), the summa cum laude graduate was able to walk across the stage Dec. 17. “It wasn’t pretty or graceful, but I made it,” Hintermeister said.
Following high school, Hintermeister began studying for her undergraduate degree in music at the former Marycrest College in Davenport. The Cascade, Iowa, native didn’t finish her degree then. She entered the workforce full-time, fell in love with Craig, and got married. “We celebrated our 35th anniversary in November.” The couple had a son who died shortly after birth in 1984. Two years and two days later their son Paul was born. He is “the joy of our life.”
While working, Hintermeister decided to take advantage of John Deere’s tuition reimbursement program and restarted her studies in 2001. She took another break from her education to care for family. “I would not change that decision for anything. The Lord sent me down that path for a reason. He had a purpose for me.”
During Holy Week of 2008, her life changed dramatically. She fell down a flight of stairs at home, but got up and didn’t think the fall warranted a doctor’s visit. However, on Holy Thursday she went to the doctor and found out she had broken her elbow. She was also covered in bruises and was sore. On Easter Sunday she went to the emergency room because she could not stop vomiting and suffered vertigo (dizzy, off-balance feeling).
Since the accident, Hintermeister has had to deal with vertigo, hypersensitivity to light and sound, vision issues, nose bleeds, headaches and more. Support from her family and her John Deere coworkers, along with her faith in God, have kept her going.
After the accident, her employers asked if she could still work, and she responded with a resounding “Yes.” They helped set up an office in her home so she could telework. “I’m capable of doing my work, but just at a different pace.”
In 2010, she returned to school. “It was fabulous.” She continued to work for John Deere while pursuing her degree. “Ambrose has been tremendous to work with. It took me a long time to get (to graduation) but this is a really good step for me.”
Because her health issues continued, St. Ambrose arranged for Hintermeister to take her required courses online to earn her degree. “They wanted to make sure I reached my goal.”
Laurie Harrison, Hintermeis-ter’s academic advisor, said, “Denise has worked through a great deal to complete her degree, at times struggling through classes despite her health issues. She did a great job advocating for herself and her needs, without ever once complaining about her situation or expecting special treatment. She can be very proud of her accomplishment.”
Ryan Saddler, director of diversity and student disability services, said he and Hintermeister communicated with faculty of the ACCEL program. “Denise knew what courses she needed, what her limitations were, and how to best communicate with her instructors. She kept me abreast of what was going on and I served as an advocate for her. There were a few obstacles where she had to change a few things around or withdraw from a course or two, but we were always able to make the necessary adjustments.
“I know how hard she’s had to work for this degree and I’m so proud of Denise. This also makes me proud to be an Ambrosian, knowing that we have such a welcoming and inclusive culture for students with disabilities,” Saddler said.
“The whole team was fabulous,” Hintermeister said. “If it wasn’t for them, I would not have walked down that aisle.”
She’s not a shut-in, but doesn’t get out a lot since she never knows how the surroundings or weather will affect her. When she and her husband go out for dinner, it is later in the evening and in a darker, quieter setting.
One blessing since the accident, she said, was an opportunity to spend time with her sister who had a stroke. Again, John Deere worked with her and shipped needed equipment to Pennsylvania while she spent time with her sister. “It was a good month or so with her, and I had a quiet and secluded room at the hospital where I could keep up with work and still be with my sister.”
One thing she misses is Mass. While she loves music and was a former music major, the church’s acoustics prevent her from attending Mass. For a nephew’s first Communion, she ended up watching through a window because the sounds adversely affected her. “They wanted to take me by ambulance, but I avoided it and saw him get his first Communion.”
Her disability does not stop her from living. “I could have been a quadriplegic or dead. My life changed, but I thank God every day.”
She prays daily and feels God has helped her through some very tough times. “If it weren’t for him, I would not have made it. God has a plan and we don’t always understand it,” Hintermeister said. “This has been a long road, but I made it.”