St. Ambrose community helps graduate triumph over tragedy


By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger

When St. Ambrose University graduate Kevin Wendling’s parents died in an accident on June 21, 2016, he knew he had to continue his studies to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. “My parents were both extremely proud of what I had accomplished academically and I know they would have wanted me to continue. They would have wished for me to keep pursuing my goals and dreams.”

At his graduation from St. Ambrose University in Davenport in December 2017, Kevin Wendling poses for a picture with Haley Robinson, Ryan Wendling and Ellen Witte.

Wendling graduated with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a minor in biology in May 2016. His parents attended his graduation, along with other family members. Just a month later, as he began his DPT classes, his parents were killed in an accident while riding their bicycles near their home in Morris, Ill. The St. Ambrose community came forward to support Wendling.

“The SAU community was wonderful. A great number of current DPT staff were present at the visitation for my parents. My professors worked with me to modify my exam schedule. They took time out of their day to sit down with me individually and go over some of the major concepts that I had missed while I was gone. Several of them reached out to me personally,” he said.


“Father Chuck (Adam, former chaplain at St. Ambrose) also made contact with me and invited me to his office to talk. I have nothing but good things to say about how well the Ambrose community surrounded me during this tragic time. I said that Ambrose felt like home when I first visited, and it felt even more like home that summer and into the following fall,” Wendling added. He also expressed gratitude for his friends and classmates throughout his studies at St. Ambrose. “They were there for me when I needed them, but they allowed me to deal with my grief on my own when I needed to as well.

“Students, faculty and staff were very saddened by this event,” said Michael Puthoff, director of physical therapy at the time and now dean of graduate studies and professor in the PT department. “It is hard to imagine losing both of your parents so instantly as a 20-something … Kevin has so many friends in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program and they supported him through visiting with him, talking with him and just being there. Faculty and staff were there for him in various ways whether it was having an open door for a conversation, adjusting his class schedule or just ensuring him we were there to help him in any way we could.” Additional support came from family and girlfriend Ellen Witte.

Puthoff described Wendling as focused, professional and having a strong work ethic. “As I have gotten to know Kevin, his caring personality and sense of humor shines. I have seen the relationships he has made with his classmates and know the impact he has had on his patients during his clinical rotations,” Puthoff said. “I know he will be a great physical therapist that patients love and respect. He will be able to communicate and relate with a range of people to help them move better in order to improve their lives.”

Wendling said he chose St. Ambrose as an undergraduate because “I wanted to be a person in a classroom rather than just a number in a lecture hall of 300 people. I was also thinking that I wanted to pursue physical therapy from the start and the direct admit program that SAU offered was a great draw. The location was good as it was two hours from home, which meant I was far enough away that I would be independent but yet not too far that I could make a trip home for a weekend or special occasion. … When I first visited Ambrose it felt like home. The staff and faculty I met with were extremely personable, and I knew that SAU was where I wanted to attend college.”

His interest in physical therapy began at an early age. When he was a child, his mom had a knee procedure and “I was dragged along to the appointments.” By high school, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in healthcare. He shadowed a good friend’s mom who worked in an outpatient clinic. “I was hooked. I then got a job at a local hospital and worked in their therapy department as a tech for a couple of years prior to starting the PT program at SAU.”

During his rotations in his doctoral studies, he discovered that “being able to use my skill and knowledge to help someone restore movement and function into their life is a remarkable feeling.”

Graduating in December, he felt a mixture of emotions. “Yes, my parents were not able to see me walk across the stage again. It is sad that they will no longer be there for the big moments in my life. However, I know that they are still with me in spirit and I know that they would be incredibly proud of what all I have accomplished. They were extremely supportive and loving people and I was blessed to have them for as many years as I did.”

He has accepted a position in the orthopedic residence program at St. Ambrose and will be working full-time with Genesis Outpatient Physical Therapy.

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