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Cerebal palsy no obstacle for happy hiker, biker, Ph.D.-to-be

USU grad one of kind

The most remarkable thing about Brad Hintze is not that he is an honors student who manages to earn high marks, but that he struggles just to feed himself and talk.

It's not that he has managed to cycle thousands of miles and hike numerous mountain peaks despite the challenges of cerebral palsy.

It's not that he had several of the nation's brainiac schools lining up this year to give him a scholarship in their Ph.D. biochemistry programs, with Duke University coming out the winner.

It's none of those things. The most remarkable thing about Brad Hintze is that he looks like he needs our help — but maybe we need his.

People see him daily around the Utah State University campus with his head listing painfully to the port side, a slight limp to his gait, his speech a little slurred, and after a time they see him as a source of strength. He is often stopped by fellow students — perfect strangers — as he makes his way to class, and all they want is to meet him and thank him for his obvious determination, attitude and inspiration.

It has become his mission. Hintze was planning to serve a formal mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a few years ago, but when he was told that his condition would preclude proselytizing, he decided to go to school instead. During his first semester at USU, a student stopped him on campus.

"Can I meet you?" he asked. Hintze was puzzled — "I mean, who says that?" he says now of that exchange.

"Uh, yeah, sure," he replied.

"I just want to thank you for doing what you do," the stranger told him. "You are an inspiration."

"Right then and there," Hintze said earlier this week, "I decided this was where the Lord wanted me to be. This might be where I can do the most good. It was very comforting."

Last spring, USU presented Hintze with the school's Legacy of Utah State Award, which is presented annually to the student who represents "the heart and soul of the university" and who is committed to study, service and perseverance through adversity.

Hintze was born with cerebral palsy, a disease that affects the motor control centers of the brain, resulting in the loss of varying degrees of muscle control and coordination. In Hintze's case, it has affected mostly the fine motor skills and his balance. He can't use a pen or a pencil, and he needs help feeding himself. "He can do it himself, but it isn't pretty," said his father, Les. He cooks his own meals, but, like most college students, he must keep it simple.

If the CP challenges weren't enough, when Hintze was 16 he contracted cervical dystonia, a disease that causes muscles to contract constantly. In Hintze's case, the dystonia attacked his face, jaw and especially his neck, at times pulling his head nearly to his left shoulder.

Imagine going through life looking as if you are constantly trying to peek around the next corner.

The dystonia makes talking difficult and tiring. Sometimes he gets so fatigued from trying to hold his head up against the pull of muscles and gravity that he has to lie down and support his head with a pillow. It is a cruel irony that someone possessed of so much intelligence is unable to communicate facilely. It wasn't until Hintze started a family newsletter/blog that his family truly knew him.

"It was difficult to talk, so he used few words," said Les. "Then this articulate, incredible person would come out in the newsletter. He talks through his fingers."

Brain surgery might reverse the effects of dystonia, but it's risky and expensive — $50,000. Medicaid refused to cover it, claiming the surgery was experimental.

Hintze, a pleasant, happy sort, could easily (and literally) hang his head and complain about his lot life. What did he do to deserve this? But Hintze never goes there. Everybody has disabilities, he reasons; it's just that most of them don't show.

"I have known people who were disabled and were very negative because of their situation," Hintze said. "They're not fun to be around. I noticed this and recognized that I can't do anything about my disability, so I decided just to live my life the best that I can and see where I can go. I'm not going to be negative about it because there's no reason for it."

When Hintze was a boy, a teacher once asked him this question: If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be? His answer: "Nothing." In the car ride home afterward, his mother, Shaunne, asked him the same question again. "You really wouldn't change anything?" His reply: "No, I'm fine."

As Shaunne notes, "He's had struggles for a long time, but it almost seems like it bothered me more than him."

Hintze's attitude is infectious and inviting. One man in the Hintzes' neighborhood told him one day, "You're everybody's son in the neighborhood." Les and Shaunne can't go to church without somebody asking about their youngest son, and when Brad comes home from school, the neighbor kids come over to visit.

Hintze, now 26, wasn't always confident in his ability to leave home and navigate life independently. After graduating from Alta High School, he was convinced he couldn't manage college; instead, he worked for his father's construction business for two years, manning a radial arm saw, of all things. Emboldened by the encouragement of others, Hintze eventually mustered the courage to enroll at USU.

An interest in horticulture blossomed into an interest in biology and then chemistry and finally a marriage of them all in biochemistry. During his first semester at USU, he somehow wound up in an advanced biology class that required two prerequisites he hadn't fulfilled. He was lost for the first few days, but then he did what he always does when things are difficult: He went to work. Studying nonstop, he produced the highest grade in the class on the first test, and soon he was conducting a study class for other students in the class.

That's the way it would be during his undergrad studies. He was frequently asked by fellow students for help with schoolwork.

After graduating from USU last spring, Hintze fielded scholarship offers from various universities — Pitt, North Carolina, Utah, Virginia, New York State and Duke. He is working for the USU biochemistry department this summer before he reports to Duke in the fall.

"It is unique for someone like me to be in the biochemistry field," he says.

With his lack of fine motor coordination, he can't handle the delicate instruments in a laboratory to run experiments. "I'd be a disaster in the lab," is how he puts it. And that type of research is mostly what biochemists do. Fortunately, he has found his niche. Once data is collected in the lab, it must be analyzed via computer. That's Hintze's job.

Says Hintze, "Genetics is absolutely fascinating to me, the mechanisms of replicating and transcribing DNA and the molecular levers. It's pretty cool."

Currently, he is studying the structure and method of proteins, whatever that means.

The first impression people have is that Brad needs assistance — in restaurants, for instance, servers tend to look at Brad's companions to order for him — but he manages an active, independent life. He regularly hikes the local mountains and cycles the roads around Logan on a tandem bike. He rode tandem with math lecturer Bryan Bornholdt in the 2007 LOTOJA bike race, a 206-mile, one-day trip from Logan to Jackson Hole.

At the finish line, Hintze was approached by another racer. As Bornholdt told Utah State Today, "The man told Bradley that when we passed him, he was about ready to give up. But he decided if Bradley was still riding, he would keep riding. He moved in behind us and rode with our group the last 11 miles. He was in tears as he spoke to Bradley."

Hintze's five siblings have been similarly inspired by him. They recently presented him with a plaque that was inscribed with things they had learned from their younger brother — "Sleep? What's that?" "Perseverance." "There are no obstacles, just opportunities." "Don't assume I only need tiny bites; shovel it in." "Hard work and determination get me where I want to be." "Everyone has a handicap."

And to think, all this time people thought it was Hintze who needed the inspiration and help, when it really was the other way around.

e-mail: drob@desnews.com