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(From time to time, the blog features recipients of the IHA Iowa Hospital Heroes Award. These outstanding hospital employees come from across the state and work at hospitals of every size. They exemplify the courage, caring and community focus that are the hallmarks of the hospital mission in Iowa.)

How do you put into words the impact this hospital hero has for our rural community and hospital? Troy Buchholz is a family practice physician at Community Memorial Hospital (CMH) who is admired for living the hospital mission of giving “the best care where and when you need it.” Dr. Buchholz works in the clinic and hospital by day and the emergency department by night and weekends.

He tirelessly gives of his time, talent and expertise to better the organization, patients and the community he serves and lives in. He has amazing dedication and commitment, often taking time away from his young family to make sure patients and their families are well cared for.

Dr. Buchholz (center) with a group of medical volunteers who assisted victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Buchholz has been working at CMH for the past 14 years building a strong reputation and a highly regarded professional medical practice that continues to grow. He has been a mentor and preceptor for many family practice and mid-level students throughout the years. He loves to teach and gives such encouragement to those under his guidance. He can always be counted on when support is needed and is our go-to when medical questions or crisis come forth.

Dr. Buchholz has a strong faith that helps guide him in his day-to-day work. He treats everyone with kindness and respect, following the Golden Rule. His patients have been heard to ask of him, “If this was your mother, what would you do?” and he answers them faithfully. When he must deliver a poor prognosis, share about a difficult disease or diagnosis or help a patient and family through an end-of-life situation, he is often seen praying with these patients and families.

Those who work beside Dr. Buchholz get the pleasure each and every day to witness his amazing character and the outstanding care he provides. Dr. Buchholz’s dedication to CMH and our patients is exemplary. He has a strong commitment to providing the best possible care to our patients and living the vision to be the health care provider of choice for citizens of Sumner and the surrounding community.

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IHERF scholarship recipient Cheri Theulen, a nurse at St. Anthony Regional Hospital in Carroll, is joined by hospital CEO Ed Smith.

IHA’s Iowa Hospital Education and Research Foundation (IHERF) has awarded $119,000 in scholarships to 34 college students from all parts of Iowa. The students, who are all studying in health care fields, will each receive $3,500 for the upcoming academic year and each is eligible for an additional $3,500 award. Four of the students are repeat recipients from 2016 and one student is a repeat recipient from 2014.

Scholarship recipient Cheri Theulen, a nurse at St. Anthony Regional Hospital in Carroll, is using the funds toward earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Upper Iowa University. “I am so excited to enhance my knowledge, explore new dimensions of nursing and grow as a nurse leader,” Theulen wrote after learning she would receive the scholarship. “I feel privileged to be selected and I will continue to promote not only the nursing profession but also to advocate for nurses to work and live in Iowa.”

IHA established the IHERF Health Care Careers Scholarship Program in 2004 to help address the ongoing shortage of health care professionals and encourage Iowans to establish or grow their careers with Iowa hospitals. The first scholarships were awarded in 2005 and nearly 400 students have benefited from the program. To date, the scholarship program has provided more than $1 million in direct support to students since its inception.

Iowa hospitals also benefit from the scholarship program. In exchange for financial support, scholarship-receiving students agree to work one year in an Iowa hospital for each year they receive an award. Today, more than 350 past scholarship recipients are working in hospitals across the state.

IHA staff, the IHERF Board, hospital leaders and nurse leaders from throughout the state evaluated scholarship applications from more than 130 students, who were judged on grade-point average, a written personal statement, letters of reference and extracurricular, community and health care-related activities.

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John Lawless, son of Evelyn Oppold Lawless, and Pam Westendorf at Hansen Family Hospital in Iowa Falls. Pam received the Lawless family’s scholarship that honored Evelyn’s long nursing career and then unexpectedly met her at the hospital.

Evelyn Oppold Lawless’ life was coming to a close and Pam Westendorf’s was just beginning when the two women met in a chance encounter last fall.

Evelyn, a 99-year-old farm wife who’d raised five children and found her passion in nursing, was admitted to Hansen Family Hospital in Iowa Falls on Nov. 10. She was weak, and was being tended to by nurses, nursing students and an instructor.

Pam, an LPN who’s working toward her RN, was one of those students. And she was looking for a sign. She wanted to know she was in the right place, doing the right thing.

As the nurses spoke with Lawless and her son, John Lawless, they learned she was a nurse.

“In fact,” John told them, “there’s a scholarship in her name to help young nurses.”

Pam looked at the computer screen. Evelyn Oppold Lawless. It was her $500 scholarship that had given Pam a start on her education after graduating from South Hardin High School in 2014. She told Evelyn about their connection.

“Her face lit up,” Pam said. “I will never forget that face, ever.”

The chance meeting was exactly what Pam had been waiting for.

“As a nurse, we always try to find a sign from God telling us that we’re in the right profession,” Pam said. “And that day I totally got a sign that that was where I needed to be. It’s crazy that one scholarship and one lady can tell me I’m in the right area. God gave me a sign.”

Evelyn Oppold Lawless nursing school portrait

Evelyn Oppold Lawless grew up on a farm, one of eight children. In 1938, and the height of the depression, she left home and enrolled at St. Joseph Mercy School of Nursing in Mason City. Inspired by her aunt, Lillian Oppold, who was a member of hospital nursing staff in Iowa Falls for 24 years, Evelyn was the first of her siblings to get an education.

In 1943, Evelyn married Harry Lawless. Shortly thereafter, he was sent overseas to fight in World War II. Evelyn headed to the San Francisco Bay area to work as a nurse in the shipyards where two of her brothers were stationed.

When the war was over, Evelyn came home to Iowa. She and Harry settled on a farm in Hardin County, north of Eldora. They had five children, and Evelyn continued with her nursing career, working as a private duty nurse, and also treating patients at the hospitals in Iowa Falls and Eldora.

She often talked about her love of nursing.

“She was very, very passionate about it,” said John Lawless, who lives in Ankeny after retiring from working the family farm. “Mom was a people person. She loved people. She loved meeting new people and she cared for people very much. That showed through not just in her nursing, but in her personality too.”

She exuded a love of nursing, inspiring both of her daughters to become RNs. A couple of nieces also went into nursing.

When she turned 90 in 2007, her children surprised her with a unique gift: a nursing scholarship in her name.

“Her reaction was tears,” John said.

About five years after the scholarship was established, the siblings’ money ran out. Rather than end the gift, Evelyn continued to fund it herself.

Every year, a $500 scholarship goes to a South Hardin High School student who intends to pursue a career in nursing. Ellsworth Community College attendance isn’t required, but many of the recipients have gone on to school there.

Pam received the scholarship when she graduated in 2014. “I don’t even know what drove me to nursing,” Pam said. “I’d always been a caretaker. So I thought I’d just go into nursing.”

She attended Ellsworth Community College (ECC) and last summer became an LPN. Now she’s enrolled in the ECC RN program. After getting her sign from Evelyn, Pam said she’s focused on figuring out what she’ll do next.

“I still have a lot of praying to do,” Pam said. “God has a plan for me, I just don’t know what it is yet. I’m waiting for another sign.”

In the meantime, Pam is working toward her RN, and spending quite a bit of time at Hansen Family Hospital. The hospital has a close relationship with ECC’s nursing program. Students are able to use the hospital to get experience they can’t get anywhere else.

“We love having students here,” said Christina Peterson, the hospital’s Director of Education. “It’s so much fun to see their growth. They are the future of health care.”

Clinicals at other hospitals aren’t nearly as hands-on, Pam said.

“I love coming here for clinicals,” Pam said of Hansen Family Hospital. “We go to other facilities, but we don’t get the freedom we have here. At other facilities we just go around with a nurse and watch what they do.”

***

About five hours after Pam and Evelyn met, Evelyn passed away. The women’s chance meeting gave Evelyn closure and it gave Pam a path forward. And now the story of their meeting is inspiring others to believe in the power of fate.

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David Clark is a nurse anesthetist at Montgomery County Memorial Hospital in Red Oak. He recently had a kidney transplant. In honor of April being Donate Life Month, he decided to tell his story. Here it is in his own words.

My name is David Clark and I have kidney disease.

I found out when I was 17. It was just a fluke, really. I was in a high school health class that visited the local hospital for a day. They sent me to watch some ultrasound procedures in X-ray, but that particular time they had no patients so they used me to perform an ultrasound. The tech said, “Let’s look at your kidneys. Everybody likes seeing kidneys.”

Well, not very many people had kidneys like mine. Mine were full of cysts. It kind of freaked out the tech, but polycystic kidney disease (PKD) runs in my family so I was not shocked. My mom, my aunt, and both of my sisters had it, as well as countless past relatives that I never knew.

Being so young, I failed to fully realize the seriousness of this discovery. I told my mom about it and all she said was, “Don’t tell anyone about it or you won’t be able to get life or health insurance.” You see, one of my sisters also found out at a young age during a scheduled test so it was in her permanent health record. She never could get private health or life insurance unless she participated in a group plan, so I kept it secret. I told no one. I think for a while I even convinced myself that my kidneys were just fine. They weren’t.

Polycystic kidney disease is the most frequently inherited disease in the United States. More than 600,000 people in the U.S. have it, and more than 12 million suffer worldwide.

PKD causes the formation of cysts in the kidney that grow over time. These cysts grow and push normal tissue out of the way and slowly affect the function of the kidney. Kidneys can grow to be the size of footballs and weigh up to 20 pounds. Mine were almost the size of a football.

Since the kidney is over-engineered, it takes a long time to see any changes, but inevitably, kidney failure is the end result. There is no cure. Options are dying, dialysis or a kidney transplant.

If you have never heard of PKD, you are not alone. We are pretty quiet about it. It’s not a glorious disease, and patients have a reputation of being difficult. We get cranky and itchy and have leg cramps. We are generally short-tempered. These are generalizations, of course. Some get along pretty well (like me) and some are completely disabled by their symptoms.

About 16 years ago, I had a bad kidney stone attack that landed me in the hospital and led to a three-hour surgery to remove the three stones. Needless to say that the cat was out of the bag. My polycystic kidney disease was in the open. I decided to start seeing a nephrologist to monitor my condition. For 15 years, I did just that.

In 2015, notable changes started. My kidneys had reached a point where they could not keep up as much and lab values began to rise. As my levels continued to rise, the symptoms of kidney failure began to get worse; itching that would not go away, being tired all the time no matter how much sleep I got, irritability, and frequent nausea with eating.

In January of 2016, my levels reached the point where I qualified to be put on the kidney donor list. This meant a complete two-day workup, about a gallon of blood draws, and counseling. Once I was approved and put on the donor kidney waiting list, I was told that the average wait time for my blood type was 18 months unless the perfect kidney presented. I was to remain within a two-hour radius of Omaha and to avoid getting sick. A donor could be found at any time and I would have to drop whatever I was doing a report to the hospital.

Average wait time of 18 months – I didn’t think my native kidney would keep working well enough to keep me from needing dialysis for that long!

Why is the wait so long? There is a lack of kidney donors. There are more needs than can be filled in a timely fashion.

In the early morning of last Aug. 11, I got a call from the Nebraska Medicine Transplant Office. They had a kidney for me. I had only been on the list for four months. I definitely was not expecting a call this soon. I was speechless.

Several things went through my mind – first, disbelief, then panic, then excitement. My wife and I had to make several quick phone calls to family and work (I was on call at the time), pack up some things, and then drive quickly to Nebraska Medicine to check in. That day was a whirlwind of activity with final tests, visits with all the staff that would take care of me, and family coming in.

After waiting 20 hours I was finally taken in for my transplant. For me, the next thing I knew was waking up and in a little pain. It was all over. Just like that I had a new kidney! My doctor said everything went great and that the kidney was already working hard. What a special thing that was to hear.

I later learned that I received what amounted to the perfect kidney and that is why I was moved to the head of the line. My doctor said that even a family member donor would probably not have been as good of a match as the one that I received.

Now for the hard part of the story.

In my case I received a donor (cadaver) kidney meaning someone had to die first before the kidney was made available. Someone died for me to live. I am grateful for the gift and blessings I received that day but somewhere out there was a family grieving at their loss. For a long time I took that very hard and would get emotional just thinking about it.

In December I received a special holiday surprise – a couple of letters from the mother and aunt of my kidney donor. I found out who my donor was. When I say I found out who she was, I don’t just mean her name. I mean I “found out” who she was. What I learned that day was that there is a higher power out there and He works in very mysterious ways.

This person was not only a match to me physically, but we were also a match in our personal lives. Personality, interests, temperament – all were a good match. This person had been involved in a car accident 10 years ago that almost claimed her life. She survived, but that accident changed her.

That was when she made the decision to become an organ donor. She also informed her family and they supported her decision. I say this because until I read that letter, I was feeling guilty. I am still emotional about the whole thing but not guilty anymore. Her family is grateful that her death was not the end of her story. A part of her is living in so many other people. Her mother expressed thankfulness that I was blessed with this gift of life. My donor’s nickname was “Ladybug” and out of tribute to her I have named my new kidney “Ladybug.”

My life has been changed by the gift of a kidney donor. As a result of my experience, most of my wife’s family has decided to become organ donors. I hope and pray that more people hear stories that impact the way that they feel about organ donation. There is so much need out there.

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(From time to time, the blog features recipients of the IHA Iowa Hospital Heroes Award. These outstanding hospital employees come from across the state and work at hospitals of every size. They exemplify the courage, caring and community focus that are the hallmarks of the hospital mission in Iowa.)

Talk about General Surgeon Dr. Timothy Breon at Mahaska Health Partnership (MHP) in Oskaloosa and people will smile… and often chuckle! It doesn’t matter what department staff work in, he makes an uplifting impression throughout the organization. (For a “dose” of Dr. Breon’s good humor, watch this video of him learning he will receive the Iowa Hospital Heroes Award.)

Dr. Breon truly is an excellent surgeon, but also a very selfless person. He swells with a wonderful sense of humor; he supports community fundraisers not just financially, but with his time and talents; he’s an educator at heart and a very good speaker; he puts his patients first and will often pray with them; he’s a family man who is immensely proud of his five children.

There is not one specific reason that makes Dr. Breon a Hospital Hero, but a thousand that span more than 14 years since he first came to MHP.

It wasn’t difficult to compile examples of the many lives he’s touched; a few phone calls resulted in a flood of personal accounts. One grateful family shared, “Dr. Breon had my brother-in-law scheduled for a Lap Nissen surgery. When the labs came back before surgery, it wasn’t good. He told us the results and talked to us about seeing a hematologist for the possibility of leukemia. We were in Des Moines for the consult very quickly, thanks to Dr. Breon. He also came to the house to explain to our family what it all meant and what the treatment plan was going to be. He would also frequently check on my brother-in-law throughout his rounds of chemo. My family will never forget his compassion and caring.”

The personal connections Dr. Breon makes with patients, the visits to a patient’s home or even showing up on his tractor in a snowstorm to pick up a stranded colleague are examples of his natural way of making health care personal.

MHP is a better health care organization thanks to Dr. Breon’s support and involvement. The hospital staff are inspired by it; administration and our board count on it and our patients and community see and feel it. We are thankful and proud now that the entire State of Iowa has the chance to know our Hero!

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