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PROFILE: Crash Changes Course of Student’s Education

Early in April 2000, Northside resident Heather Sturgill had made a decision, “Yes, I’ll do it.” That decision? To return to the University of Cincinnati to complete her education. Two weeks later, another motorist ran a stop sign, hitting the car Heather was in. But in the end, Heather didn’t let years of recovery and her life in a wheelchair slow her drive for an education.

Date: 11/8/2004 8:00:00 AM
By: Mary Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Dottie Stover
UC ingot Heather Sturgill, 33, can’t use her legs, her trunk, her arms, hands and fingers.  But she can use her brain, and that’s what matters most to her. 

Heather's stove doesn't have dials but a sensitive touch pad

After all, it’s her academic acumen and determination that have rolled over the obstacles that might have prevented her from achieving a college degree as an urban studies major in UC’s School of Planning, part of the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning.  Not only is she an A-student going for her baccalaureate degree, she’s also working as a community organizer in Northside, currently coordinating a large-scale, ten-band party for the entire neighborhood.  Heather also works for UC’s Disability Services Office, and as part of her work, serves as an accessibility consultant for the Office of the University Architect

“I like working on all the events and programs I do.  I want that solid rep as someone who can get things done.  I’ll need it once I graduate (in spring 2006) and am looking for work…I’m hoping to work in some fashion on issues of accessibility or in community organizing,” says Heather, whose rep should be solid gold by the time she graduates.

There’s certainly no need to look further than Heather’s 1862 Northside home to appreciate what she can accomplish.  When she was injured on April 15, 2000, Heather was actually living in a different house, one that became incredibly hard for her to negotiate or even leave after the accident.  “My husband, Gerald, rigged up a ramp, but our old house was a shotgun style, three rooms deep and three stories high.  It was incredibly difficult for people to help me in and out.  It was just ssssoooooo incredibly scary… especially after one of my best friends tried.  It had been raining, and the wood was wet.  Her foot slipped.  She ended up on her knees, back pressed against the neighbor’s house and a rod that stuck out from my chair just a couple of inches from going through her head.  She, amazingly, had managed to keep the chair from completely falling over and crushing me as we slid down the ramp.  It became so scary to go in and out that I just avoided it.”

Heather also uses the low-sitting stove as a work space to look at architectural drawings.
Heather also uses the low-sitting stove as a work space. Here she views architectural drawings.

So, Heather was essentially trapped for two years following the accident that had nearly cost her her life during her subsequent three-month stay in the hospital.  “I nearly died in the hospital several times because my lungs kept filling with fluid.  I couldn’t even call a nurse for help.  I would have suffocated and died of ‘complications’ if my husband hadn’t spent every night with me,” explains Heather, adding that in her old house, she began to feel that her life was being taken away in another way. 

She wanted to push her physical limits, seeking to regain what motion she could in her head, neck and shoulders.  “People think I can’t do much, but they don’t know.  I’ve learned that it’s all about balance, quite literally, and what it can achieve of us.”

So, in order to further Heather’s drive for independence, the couple decided to rehab an 1862 “pile of rubble.”  Heather used her prior experience gained in UC architecture courses (which she took as a non-matriculated student before the accident) to redesign the first floor of the home to be “user friendly” for a woman in a wheelchair: light switches are lowered and outlets are higher than usual; remote control blinds; electric door openers and lock releases as well as lowered cabinets, counters, sinks and oven.

Heather uses a remote to move her blinds.
Heather uses a remote to adjust the blinds

She also learned to drive an old Ford van adapted for her use by the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services.  Was she intimidated when learning to drive it?  “No.  I simply had to.  I just wanted to get out.  I said, ‘Let me at it.’”

One morning incident in the van did, temporarily, throw Heather off balance as she was heading for UC:  “I was driving up Clifton Ave. when a car behind me pulled out, swerved to the right of me, accelerated ahead of me and then came from my right to do a u-turn right in front of me.  It was horrifying for me.  When the driver ran that stop sign in April 2000 and hit me, I was hit from the right.  Now, I could see this Clifton driver swinging around on my right out of the corner of my eye.  All I could think of was how I’d struggled so hard to regain my independence, and suddenly, it was all going to be taken away again.”

Heather got to DAAP and parked her van in front of the college.  “It had been such an intense fear and shock.  I sat there crying and literally shaking for an hour.  I was a real mess,” she admits. 

After a time though, Heather managed to regain her composure, go into the building and attend  classes.  “Really,” she admits, “It’s something anyone else would have done.  People who haven’t been injured look at me and give me more praise than I deserve.  They imagine they couldn’t succeed if they were in my place, but that’s not true.  No one ever knows what they can really do unless they are put in a position where they have to.  We’re all just doing what we have to do.”

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