By Monica Pryts/Staff Writer
MILL CREEK TOWNSHIP —
Eileen Opitz feels like she’s doing God’s work by running her own version of a free medical equipment recycling service from her Mill Creek Township home.
“It was what I was supposed to do,” said Opitz, 80, who spent 45 years working as a registered nurse at the hospitals in Meadville, Grove City and Greenville.
It all started in 1996, when she retired from nursing and started helping her nephew Don Braham and late brother-in-law Lloyd Braham with their business, Braham Auctioneers in Grove City.
“Nobody would buy the medical equipment,” she said of what she noticed at many auctions.
Using her own money and donations from her parish, Sandy Lake Presbyterian Church, Opitz would bid on medical equipment, spending just a few bucks on each piece – toilet chairs, wheelchairs, and shower chairs – knowing she could clean them up and put them to good use.
“If somebody is bidding against me, I stop,” she said, adding she figures they must need it more than she does. She still goes to auctions for more equipment, paying out of her own pocket.
Opitz, an energetic wife, mother and grandmother who still has the nurse mindset, first started helping people at church who were in need of medical equipment but didn’t have the means to pay for it.
“I thought that it was a mission. We just put it our newsletter,” she said.
Her fellow parishioners knew they could contact her to borrow a walker or a cane at no charge and keep it as long as they needed, no questions asked.
“The word has gotten out,” Opitz said of how things took off from there, even though she doesn’t put up flyers or advertise her service.
She now has four sheds outside her home to hold all of the equipment and Gordon, her husband of nearly 59 years, built the first one from pieces of wormy chestnut leftover from the farm where Opitz grew up, not far from where she lives now – the former North Hill Dairy Farm.
“I just keep two of everything,” she said of her stockpile, adding she often finds donated items on her front porch.
And when she runs out of room or comes across a broken piece of equipment she can’t fix herself, she donates the items to UPMC Horizon’s Medical Equipment Recycling Program, which has locations at its Greenville and Farrell hospitals. She also refers people to MERP if she doesn’t have something on hand, like a hospital bed.
“I’ve become very acquainted with them,” Opitz said.
She’s thankful to be in great health but knows what a blessing it is to have access to something like MERP or her own backyard setup. Her husband was treated for esophageal cancer five years ago and needed medical equipment while she helped care for him; he’s doing very well and is cancer-free, she said.
Becky Sherlock of Sandy Lake believes Opitz herself is a blessing to the community. She and her family have gone to Opitz for medical equipment and found everything they needed.
“I just feel like she’s an angel on earth,” Sherlock said.
Jill Smith agreed, saying Opitz is a “very kind-hearted humanitarian” and people know they can go to her for help.
Smith, of Sandy Lake, knows Opitz from church and they do mission work together, so she’s seen her in action.
“I just can’t say enough good about her,” she said.
Opitz said she is grateful to be able to help others in Mercer and Venango counties and the surrounding areas, especially because healthcare costs are on the rise for many, even those with insurance coverage.
“You bloom where you’re planted,” she said.
And she doesn’t stop at the medical equipment service. Opitz has made three mission trips to Ecuador with groups from the Franklin and Oil City hospitals, delivering shoes, medicine, food and other supplies to the poor.
“I was 70 years old the first time I went,” she said.
The last time she went was three years ago, and it’s not safe to travel there now because of disease, but she keeps in mind a book called “End of the Spear” by Steve Saint; it’s set in the same area of Ecuador where she visited and contains a quote she applies to her own life’s work:
“He is no fool to give what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Opitz also reflected on her time at the former Sharon General School of Nursing, especially since one of her much-admired classmates, Twila Jean Stuyvesant McDowell, passed away in October.
McDowell was a widowed mother of two when she enrolled in nursing school and older than the other students, and they all looked up to her for inspiration.
“I couldn’t not pass it on,” she said of what she learned from McDowell.
But Opitz said she’s not one to go out and try to make a name for herself.
“You don’t ever have to be a success in life. You just have to have satisfaction. They’re two completely different things,” she said.
If you’re in need of medical equipment or have something you’d like to donate, call Eileen Opitz at 724-376-3440.
Published Dec. 21, 2013, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.