A Chance Encounter as an Iowa Nurse’s Legacy Lives On

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.”

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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.