ECC nursing student has chance encounter with scholarship donor

John Lawless and Pam Westendorf

John Lawless and Pam Westendorf

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 this 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 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. She was looking for a sign 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 former nurse.

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

Pam looked at the patients’ name on 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 encounter was exactly what Pam had been waiting for.

“As nurses, 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 this 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.”

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Evelyn Oppold Lawless grew up on a farm, one of eight children. In 1938, during the height of the depression, she left home and enrolled at St. Joseph Mercy School of Nursing in Mason City. She was the first of her siblings to receive a college education.

In 1943, Evelyn married Harry Lawless. Shortly thereafter, he was sent overseas to serve during 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 and Harry settled on a farm in Hardin County, north of Eldora where they had five children. Evelyn continued her nursing career working as a private duty nurse and treated patients at the hospitals in Iowa Falls and Eldora.

“She was very, very passionate about it,” said John Lawless, who lives in Ankeny after retiring from working on 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 often talked about her love of nursing, which inspired both of her daughters to become RNs.

At the age of 91, Harry passed away on the farm where he was born. In 2009, two years after his death, Evelyn moved from the farm to Ashbrook Assisted Living in Iowa Falls.

In 2007, when Evelyn turned 90, 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 scholarship fund was depleted. Rather than end the gift, Evelyn continued to fund the scholarship 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 for this scholarship, but many of the recipients have gone on to attend school there.

“I don’t even know what drove me to nursing,” Pam said. “I’ve always been a caretaker. So I thought I’d just go into nursing.”

She attended Ellsworth Community College 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 attending classes at ECC toward becoming a RN and spends quite a bit of time at the Hansen Family Hospital. The hospital has a close relationship with Ellsworth Community College’s nursing program, allowing ECC students to get hands-on experience they can’t receive 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.”

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About five hours after Pam and Evelyn met, Evelyn passed away. The women’s encounter gave Evelyn the opportunity to see her legacy come to life and gave Pam a path forward. Now the story of their meeting is inspiring others to believe in the power of fate.