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Compassion is the key

When Mary Lou Kozitka learned that she had won an award for her caregiving services, it couldn't have come at a better time.

Kozitka, a nursing assistant at Lincoln Park Assisted Living, Detroit Lakes, and before that, at St. Mary's Nursing Center, was just a day away from undergoing major heart surgery -- an aortic bypass, to be exact.

"I guess my boss (Corinne Soyring) thought it was the right time to make me feel good," said Kozitka, now three weeks into her recovery from a successful surgery.

Kozitka was recently named "Caregiver of the Year" for Minnesota Health and Housing Alliance's District C, covering 11 counties of west-central Minnesota. But while she felt honored by the recognition, she was also a little uncomfortable with it, Kozitka admitted earlier this week.

"It (the recognition) feels good -- but it's a little embarrassing, in a way," she says. "I don't feel deserving... I feel everyone who works here (at St. Mary's) deserves recognition for what they do."

Lincoln Park, owned by St. Mary's Regional Health Center, is a member of MHHA, an association of nursing homes and senior housing providers. Kozitka's award was announced at MHHA's Institute for Older Adult Services, a gathering of nearly 4,000 caregivers and others who work in nursing homes and senior living facilities.

She wasn't able to be in the Twin Cities to accept her award; instead, Kozitka was honored at a special reception on Friday at St. Mary's. Though she has been on leave from her job since the surgery, Kozitka said she's itching to get back to work.

"I miss the people," she said. "I'm excited to return to work in a few weeks."

A native of Detroit Lakes, Kozitka began work at St. Mary's Nursing Center in 1981 and last fall, she transferred to the Lincoln Park Assisted Living. Those who worked with her at the care center report that they let her go with mixed feelings: they would miss her, but they also knew that Lincoln Park residents would be getting a very special person.

"Mary Lou dedicates her time at work to make the lives of all residents the best it can be and to enjoy living each day to the fullest," said retired R.N. Ann Jenson, whom Kozitka credits as being her mentor when she first started at St. Mary's. "It is her genuine love of caring for the elderly which puts her above all others."

"You just get very attached to (the residents) -- I've lost a lot of friends over the years," Kozitka said. "Working at St. Mary's has been a life experience -- I've learned a lot, and my coworkers are like a family."

When it came time to gather recommendations for her award nomination, residents and staff praised Kozitka's generous spirit, both with her time and her resources.

In one instance, she worked with a local mechanic to renovate an old electric wheel chair for a resident who did not have the ability to pay for the service. Kozitka got both the labor and parts donated and the resident was able to retain much desired independence and mobility for several years.

An anonymous recommendation stated: "Mary Lou does little extras for the residents that are above and beyond the job requirement. For example, she volunteers for the annual Christmas shopping. She will go after work or on her day off to purchase an item or items that a resident may have requested but had no other way of getting."

Kozitka doesn't see that as anything out of the ordinary, however.

"I just feel that when I can do those little things (for the residents), it makes me feel better about myself," she said.

Kozitka, who has been married to her husband John for 15 years, has two grown children, Jay and Bobbi Jo, from a previous marriage.

She first became attracted to the idea of working with the elderly as a young girl.

"When I was little, I liked being around elderly people -- I thought they were fun to visit with," she said. "In junior high, I was a candy striper at St. Mary's."

Though she was a stay-at-home mom for the first year after her son was born, Kozitka went to work at St. Mary's full-time the following year -- and she stayed.

"I love working with the elderly -- I think I always have," she said of her reasons for choosing to be a nursing assistant for 25 years. "I've got a lot of respect for them."

Kozitka said that while nursing assistants take care of the work most people don't like to do -- such as emptying bedpans, bathing, shaving, feeding and dressing the residents -- she wouldn't change a thing.

"Being a nursing assistant is hard work -- but I find it rewarding," she said.

Though many people would shy away from spending time with an elderly person during the waning hours of their life, Kozitka embraced it.

"I had a lot of compassion for them and their families at the end of their lives, and I enjoyed caring for them," Kozitka said.

Because she has had heart surgery twice in the last couple of years, however, Kozitka needed to leave her job at St. Mary's Nursing Center and take one that involved less heavy lifting.

"Lincoln Park has welcomed me with open arms," she said.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454