Rocking Kindness

School Accounts Secretary Denise Heinle offers comfort to others as she tackles her own personal battles

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Samantha Hipp

Proud of the new school store renovations, School Accounts Secretary Denise Heinle sits in front of her desk. Over the summer, Heinle added some flavor to the office with the help of three bus drivers and her late husband. The room was transformed by a paint job, new furniture and hand created decor. “I wanted it [the room] to be more spirited. The school store just had all these college posters in it and they were old and nasty,” Heinle said. “It had never been decorated until I got there.”

By Bri Davis, Parkway West High School

When life gave School Accounts Secretary Denise Heinle a curveball, she knew there would be a lot on her plate. From her husband passing from cancer, family members struggling with COVID-19 to undergoing multiple surgeries, Heinle continues to give back to others and spread kindness the best way she knows how. 

Three years ago her late husband, Virgil Heinle, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphatic cancer that began a serious change in her life. 

“After the first time of chemo, [the cancer] came back within less than a month which led to his second round of chemo,” Heinle said. “Then they suggested they put him on the list for a stem cell transplant. I couldn’t go and see him because at that time, with the COVID[-19] restrictions, they wouldn’t want us to come in at all. He would stand at the window and wave at me and our kids. The hardest part was not being there every day.”

Leading up to her husband’s passing, doctors brought the topic of the flu shot to them—and shared that it was mandatory for him to have the shot only after he reached remission.

“He always got sick when he got [the flu shots]. But the doctors convinced him to get the flu shot anyway,” Heinle said. “Three days later, he was in the ICU. And [in] complete remission. It wasn’t the cancer, it was the flu shot. He had called me and said they were putting him on a ventilator.”

With the loss of her husband from the effects of the flu shot, Heinle reflects on the moments leading up to the time when she and her children had to say goodbye to the man of their life. 

I couldn’t go and see him because at that time, with the COVID[-19] restrictions, they wouldn’t want us to come in at all. He would stand at the window and wave at me and our kids. The hardest part was not being there every day.”

— Denise Heinle

“We didn’t prepare, because I don’t think he wanted to come to those terms,” Heinle said. “But I knew that my husband was a really strong person. He took cancer with such dignity. He fought the cancer but it ended up being something else, and I don’t think he prepared himself for what that flu shot was gonna do. Nobody could have prepared for that.”

During the time her husband was battling cancer, Heinle broke her ankle in three places and her daughter had a labrum hip tear, sprained her hip and had a ligament tear, leading them both to need surgery.

“I had so many people helping,” Heinle said. “They were sending me food vouchers, and it was just so easy not to have to get up on my ankle.”

Heinle and her daughter began physical therapy to heal from their surgeries and to begin a new path for their future lives in spite of the events that have happened. 

“People did a GoFundMe for me to pay his medical bills and for heat in the house since there was none, so I still have the money to fall back on until all the insurance payments come in,” Heinle said. “I’m probably just going to get a part-time job enough to keep us afloat for the summer.” 

In the same month of her husbands’ death, another loved one of hers passed away from complications of COVID-19, adding onto her pain. 

“My sister-in-law had asthma, cirrhosis of the liver, swelling in both of her livers and the doctors could not figure out why,” Heinle said. “So when they sent her to Barnes downtown, she decided to give up her life. She did not want to fight COVID[-19] with all her other conditions. I never had to tell my husband, the doctors said it would be best if I didn’t because it would probably cause him to have more panic attacks.”

Despite the difficulties in her life, Heinle still had a large support system that aided her in making things easier every day. 

A rock that School Accounts Secretary Denise Heinle painted for Secretary Stephanie Hornsby. (Courtesy of Stephanie Hornsby)

“All we had to do is concentrate on recovering because we were taken care of by friends, family and the school,” Heinle said. “My oldest daughter and her friend had to move in with us, so they could help us with meals and cleaning the house. My sister who lives in Arizona came and spent a week with me which was really nice.”

Heinle has found solace in her work and has cherished every memory she has made, over the past 20 years, with students and staff. 

“I love working with the kids,” Heinle said. “Years ago, all the secretaries would go to lunch at the same time. That was always fun. Just having that time to listen to what others were up to.”

Heinle wants to leave her mark on the community by giving back with her rock garden that provides comfort not just for herself, but for others around her as she continues to recover from the year’s events.

“Mrs.Heinle and I go back since my own daughters were here at West back in 2012 and 2016,” Secretary Stephanie Hornsby said. “My favorite rock she made me is the one that says ‘Yesterday is heavy, put it down’ because I try to remember to stay in the moment. It’s a good reminder not to spend time on replaying what I might have done differently in the past. She is a friend and a great partner to have in this building.”

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on April 13, 2021.