Eva Kowalski, SCN, sees Hospice patients’ grace, dignity and beauty

By Amy Taylor | Common Thread
Some Hospice of Nelson County volunteers prefer to visit a certain type of patient – maybe someone who can hold a conversation, or a patient who shares a similar background in quilting or fishing or music-making.
For Eva Kowalski, all patients are the right kind of patient. After decades of lovingly caring for homeless youngsters and AIDS sufferers, the Sister of Charity of Nazareth (SCN) never asks questions – and never says no – when asked to take on a new hospice case.
“There’s no patient nobody wants,” according to Kowalski, who demonstrates her belief every day.
That’s how the 66-year-old has ended up taking on three patients, an unheard-of volunteer caseload in the Hospice that’s part of Flaget Memorial Hospital in Bardstown. Most volunteers are content to visit one person at a time.
Kowalski is special in a number of ways, from her easy acceptance of being called “Eva” instead of “Sister,” to her tanned, trim figure that shows her love for golf, to her joyful attitude toward dying patients, no matter their circumstances.
She credits a lot to the quiet, loving strength she learned from her coal miner father, now gone, and to the zest for life she learned from her mother, “who is 93 and as chipper as they come.” She and her brother learned much about love from their parents, who took in six foster children over the years.
“That was a great experience,” Kowalski said. “It taught me that kids might do bad things, but there are no bad kids; only good kids. We have to touch their innate goodness and show it to them.”
After Kowalski was educated by the SCN’s, she joined the order in 1962. Then she spent 18 years at St. Thomas-St. Vincent in Louisville, a home “for children who couldn’t be with their parents. It was short-term residential care.” When that home closed, she worked five years at Home of the Innocents, an emergency shelter for children.
Kowalski found that the most difficult youngsters offered her the greatest chance to love.
“I loved every minute of it,” she said. “I loved the challenge of dealing with children in crisis. I always had hope that every child could leave a little bit happier, and a little closer to being the person God called them to be. You never, ever, EVER give up on a child. Never, ever.”
When her work in Louisville was done, Kowalski, who has a master’s degree in counseling psychology, moved to Florida to work in a shelter for runaway and homeless youth for 13 years.
“Some of the kids had AIDS,” she said. “Some of the boys and girls were prostituting themselves. Though I was coordinator of intake, I was very interested in outreach – that’s when we walked the beaches, went under bridges, or went to sleazebag motels looking for kids to invite them to come in for ‘three hots and a cot,’ we called it.”
While on sabbatical, Kowalski was led to serve a Catholic Charities “buddy program” for dying AIDS patients. “They had a right to have somebody with them when nobody else wanted to be with them,” she said. “Some had support, but many, when they told their families about their AIDS, were ostracized. Overall, I loved their courage and their spirit.”
Then cancer hit Kowalski in 1994. The example set by her AIDS patients helped sustain her, she said.
“I was diagnosed with stage 3 colon and liver cancer; 80 percent of my liver was cancerous. At first I refused chemo treatments. Then I went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota,” where doctors convinced her to undergo chemotherapy.
Doctors told her that after chemo, she would require surgery to remove the remaining cancer. Surgery was never done. After chemo, it wasn’t needed.
“I’ve been cancer-free for years,” Kowalski said. “I shouldn’t be alive. It’s called a miracle.”
Cancer taught her two vital lessons, the volunteer said.
“One: I’m not afraid to die. The other: I never knew how much I was loved. I take those two things with me everywhere I go.”
Today after moving back to Bardstown to be closer to the SCN community, Kowalski takes those lessons to three Hospice of Nelson County patients every week.
“They’re all so radically different,” the volunteer said. “‘Nell’ is an intellectual. ‘Helen’ is a country person, full of wisdom about nature. ‘Rose’ has severe dementia, so she can’t talk or walk, but she loves to hold hands, and enjoys rides in her wheelchair.”
Hospice patients are dying – but “they still have grace and dignity and beauty,” she said. “I can live a good day or a bad day. You wake up every day and choose how to deal with suffering, illness and death.”
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