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Jolene Glueckert will graduate from the University of Montana this month with a degree in wildlife biology, reflecting a lifetime fascination with animals. She also earned her degree in four years while struggling with a rare and sometimes debilitating disease that began during her high school years.

When Jolene Glueckert was a tiny tot, she played outside with a baby garter snake, and she played so long, she believes the small creature got fed up.

The snake bit the end of her finger, and it hung on.

To the little girl, the event was monumental. She bolted into the kitchen, where her mom was working, snake dangling from her hand.

"Mom. Mommy! Look!"

Glueckert was beside herself, but not out of fear.

"I was thrilled," she said.

This year, the woman from Montana City is graduating from the University of Montana with a degree in wildlife biology – and a passion for tarantulas and butterflies and antlions and snakes that she hopes to pass on to children in her career.

Even just last year, Glueckert was far away from reaching this milestone with the College of Forestry and Conservation.

She suffered from debilitating tremors. She couldn't walk up stairs. She choked at even a small sip of water.

Doctors and nurses had no idea how to help, and at one point Glueckert contemplated suicide.

"I just felt lost. I felt alone. There was something wrong. No one could relate to me," Glueckert said.

***

A hint that Glueckert would face a medical struggle appeared when she was in high school.

"People around me noticed my speech changing. Namely, my dentists noticed it first," Glueckert said. "Then, it just progressed."

At the time, they didn't know it was a problem, but she also started having difficulty swallowing.

She and her family decided to keep tabs on the situation, and her symptoms leveled out. In 2011, she enrolled at the University of Montana.

All along, Glueckert knew she wanted to study nature one way or another. She'd grown up in a home in the mountains outside Helena, and she and her brother, A.J., considered them their playground.

"We just loved the mountains, love nature," Glueckert said.

She remembers rescuing a baby bird that had flown out of its nest right outside their back door. She saw porcupines and deer and a herd of 300 elk that lived outside their door. She'd go horn hunting in the spring.

"One of my most vivid memories growing up is all of us were in the basement watching a movie, eating ice cream, and we heard a mountain lion scream right next to our house," Glueckert said.

She'd catch snakes and keep them as pets – with permission from her parents, Patti and Bert Glueckert – as long as the terrariums were set up outside.

"The line had to be drawn somewhere," Glueckert said.

Then, she and her brother would capture crickets and feed the snakes.

She remembers being fascinating to watch the antlions in the sandy soil at the base of the swing in their yard. At one point in their life cycle, the critters tunnel into the sand and make a funnel.

"They're at the bottom with their mouths open ready to snag whatever falls in," Glueckert said.

The siblings would use margarine containers to catch them.

Her older brother, now 26, graduated with a degree in wildlife biology from UM, and she followed his footsteps through the program.

"I definitely wanted to do something outside, and when my brother came here for wildlife biology, and I got to meet the professors and visit the campus, I couldn't envision doing anything else," Glueckert said.

As a sophomore in college, though, her life began to take a hard turn. The symptoms that had come up in high school starting growing severe.

***

In the summer, dizzy spells began. Tremors wracked her body. She experienced neuropathy, painful nerve dysfunction. 

"This is ironic given my love for bugs, (but) it feels like ants crawling all over and biting you," Glueckert said of neuropathy. "It's painful sometimes."

She and her friends and family wondered if she had a magnesium deficiency or lacked a vitamin, but the symptoms mounted to the point Glueckert couldn't sleep.

"It would get so bad, mainly at night, when your muscles need the most rest," Glueckert said. "I'd lay down and my muscles were like, 'Nope. It's still time to move.' And they'd just shake constantly."

At her low point, she considered suicide. She felt lonely, and she underwent countless medical tests, MRIs and EEGs and "a bunch of other acronyms."

"Every single time, they turned up nothing," Glueckert said.

Finally, a neurologist in Missoula suggested she seek medical help out of town.

Last summer, after a couple years of tests and no answers, Glueckert and her mom headed to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

"It was under bad circumstances, but it was so much fun," Glueckert said.

***

At the Mayo Clinic, clinicians pulled her blood into giant vials to run some 100 tests. She saw the neurologist and muscle movement specialists and a speech pathologist and even a swallowing specialist.

"I had a spinal tap, and oh, that was fun," Glueckert said.

There, she was diagnosed with ataxic dysarthria, or a damaged cerebellum, which affects her speech. Glueckert speaks with a slight slur, and she feared people would judge her.

"That was a struggle for me to accept because I really didn't want to speak anymore," Glueckert said.

The diagnosis didn't account for her other symptoms, though, and Glueckert went home still in the dark about her health.

She sent more blood tests across the country.

Then, another set.

The lab told her she'd have results in 24 to 48 days, but day No. 49 came and went with no answers.

At the end of the semester, Glueckert took her final exams and headed home. There, Patti Glueckert placed a hand on her daughter's arm and admitted she had a confession.

"She says, 'The lab got back to us a week ago, but because you were taking finals, I didn't want to distract you.'"

The results were in.

***

Glueckert was diagnosed with spinocerebellar ataxia type 8, a disease of the central nervous system. After years without answers, identifying the rare genetic disorder was cause for celebration for Glueckert.

"I kept smiling and my smile just got bigger and bigger because I finally had an answer," she said.

Glueckert said she wasn't mad at her mom for withholding the news. Her mom knows her well enough to predict her daughter would have launched into research at the expense of her finals.

That winter break, she and her mom began the research together. They read about the swallowing, the speech, the tremors, the physical disability, neuropathy – about everything, Glueckert said.

At times, Glueckert's graceful demeanor belies her wicked sense of humor, and she put a point on her diagnosis. The condition is progressive, and it affects only one in 100,000 people.

"So, I am special," she said.

She takes comfort in the No. 8 tacked onto the end of the name of her disease.

"They all shorten your life somehow except for eight," she said.

***

Since her diagnosis, Glueckert has been taking medications that help her. She's gone through physical therapy, and she can climb stairs and hike in the mountains again. She gets massages every couple of weeks, and much support from professors, friends and family.

"I cannot lift them up and praise them enough," Glueckert said.

After graduation, she'll move to North Dakota to be with her boyfriend, Zack Poetzsch, an easement biologist who loves waterfowl the same way she loves bugs. Her brother's circle of friends became her circle of friends when she moved to Missoula, and then her brother's best friend became her boyfriend.

At her brother's wedding, Glueckert was tipped off that she and Poetzsch might turn out to be an item. Her cat, Nora, a companion animal her disability services coordinator encouraged her to adopt, isn't keen on people, especially men, and Glueckert introduced Nora to friends at the event.

The kitty took a liking to Poetzsch.

"I've never seen her that friendly towards another person but me," Glueckert said. "That was the moment I knew, 'OK. He is something special.'"

***

Jeanne Franz, academic adviser in wildlife biology, got to know both Glueckert siblings; she said Jolene is full of grace, a young woman with the air of a Southern belle. She's ladylike and funny and easily connects with audiences in her presentations.

"The students love her. And I think she just gets along with everyone ... ," Franz said. "She is just so gracious."

Franz watched Glueckert persevere through challenges and keep up with studies despite failing health, and she believes the biologist will do well on her career path.

"She's so excited about the topic, and loves it, and I think she will be able to share that love of nature and wildlife easily," Franz said.

In Glueckert's move away from Montana, the 21-year-old is a little worried about the lack of mountains, but she's excited at the prospect of landing a job connecting children with nature.

In particular, she wants to work with special-needs children.

"I've had special-needs classmates that just lit up my world, and so I would love to bring the joy of nature and wildlife into the lives of kids," Glueckert said.

Last summer, she worked for the Tizer Botanic Gardens and Arboretum in Jefferson City, and she gave presentations and put together activities about bugs for children.

She loved it, and it's no stretch to imagine the little kids did, too.

Insects make up more than half of life on earth, with beetles alone making up one-third, she said. Bugs are unique and diverse, yet as far as she's concerned, also under-appreciated.

"I just find that fascinating, and I find that kids do, too. I find that kids are really interested in the small things, and that's perfect because I am, too."

***

Glueckert is diplomatic about the doctors who tried to help her journey, saying some were great and "some really not."

But she received steadfast support from her family: her father, who talked with her about his own depression; her mom, who took her to the Mayo Clinic and cared for her tarantulas; and her brother, who hiked with her in Lolo as she was regaining her strength. 

"They're all angels, all of them. Angels and saints," Glueckert said.

The youngest Glueckert, of course, is cut from the same cloth.

"I love life, and I do not view this (disease) as defining me at all. ... I love life, I love people," she said. "Everything in my life is a blessing, in one way or another, and it just takes us a while to see it sometimes.

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Reporter for the Missoulian