LINDEN, NJ — Jane Koza, a 63-year-old paraplegic amputee, is living an inspirational life of struggle and success. Born and raised in Linden, Koza graduated from Kean University in 1980, the same year she was voted the college’s best female athlete, and later became a certified physical education teacher. She retired after becoming a paraplegic amputee and living with a catastrophic illness. It proved a struggle for her to gain her independence, especially coming home from the hospital and transitioning into a nursing home for 14 years.
Koza said she figured there was more to life than sitting in the lobby of the nursing home, which prompted her to leave.
“In January 2006, at the time, I was living in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and had arthroscopic knee surgery that turned into MRSA,” Koza said on Thursday, Nov. 4. This is a difficult-to-treat infection that is resistant to antibiotics.
“So I went to see an orthopedic surgeon and he decided to do a knee replacement, but my knee was infected, so that was the worst thing he could’ve done. He did the knee replacement and I ended up having a spinal cord stroke, paralyzing me from the chest down. I contracted a rare autoimmune disease called transverse myelitis. I laid in a coma for three weeks … and they were trying vehemently to keep me alive. They didn’t realize my legs weren’t moving, so, by that time, it was too late to do anything.”
Koza’s sister and her sister’s husband brought her from Florida to New Jersey. She was at the Delaire Nursing and Convalescent Center in Linden from April 7, 2006, to Oct. 16, 2019, when she got her own place at the Apartments at St. Elizabeth’s in Linden.
“I said to myself that I needed to leave,” said Koza. “With no legs and being paralyzed, I took a leap of faith. With the blessings of my doctor, I left. … I reached out to a program called I Choose Home NJ Program and they sent me on my way. They got me a rent voucher. I had to find my own apartment. … Now, I’m celebrating over two years of independent living in my apartment. I’m happy, I’m healthy and I had four Stage 4 bedsores that are healed. My outlook on life has changed, going from suicidal to looking forward to my next day.”
The decision to get into stained glass artistry was based on Koza’s long history of being interested in this process.
“I was a professional stained glass artist for 30 years. I started taking a class when I was 17, in a stained glass shop. I took one class and I immediately loved it,” she said. “I made Tiffany lamps, windows and anything you can possibly imagine. I was an accomplished stained glass artist for 30 years. I have a knack for color, and my work was impeccable. But since I couldn’t do that anymore, I was a jewelry maker for four years in the nursing home, while trying to find things to occupy my time. I then tried adult coloring but thought they were too small. I then had the idea of blowing the pictures up and coloring them. I just took to it because I have an eye for color. You have to have a certain talent for this. I’m unique in the fact that I came up with the idea and how I’m able to blend the colors like I do. I don’t know of anyone else who was doing this.”
Koza began participating in art shows while in the nursing home and soon realized there was a market for her artwork, through the Help Hope Live organization, a nonprofit dedicated to “medical fundraising for the expenses insurance doesn’t cover.” Help Hope Live has been instrumental in helping her progress for eight years now.
“My first art show was three years ago and I made $350,” she continued. She had started making art as something to do, not necessarily as something to sell. “But then I realized the market for it and I called my coordinator at Help Hope Live, where all donations go into the Help Hope Live Fund. It’s already set up where I can make $5,000 off of an art sale and it won’t jeopardize my Medicaid. The money doesn’t go directly in my name; it’ll go to Help Hope Live. I could use money on my behalf for unpaid medical expenses.”
Koza invited Linden Mayor Derek Armstead to view her artwork, which is now on display in the lobby of the Linden Free Public Library.
“He gave me a $100 donation from his nonprofit fund to help me with my supplies,” Koza said. “It was very nice to get notoriety for what I’ve done. It felt great to feel supported by him. I hope for my artwork to get more notoriety and be recognized on a broader scale. I really enjoy doing it. It relieves stress. It gives me something to do, and I feel as though it’s important that this isn’t a job, it’s more of a passion.”
According to Help Hope Live client services coordinator Melanie Johnson, the nonprofit helps people fundraise within their community through social media platforms and community-based events.
“Jane has been a client of ours since 2015,” Johnson said on Friday, Nov. 5. “Her story is sad, as to what happened to her at such a young age. She needed to create a fundraiser to help pay for those expenses that her insurance did not cover, so we worked with Jane through a number of different things.
“When I started working with her in 2019, I noticed her artwork and I thought it was amazing. It doesn’t look as if it is something that someone colored,” she continued. “I talked to her about what she wanted to do, but her main focus was to get out of the nursing home and become independent. Due to her being on medicine, she had to be careful about how she raised money. Our nonprofit status protects that for her. So she was able to fundraise, and those expenses were usable, and she can use those funds for a number of medical-related expenses. Finally, in 2019, she left the nursing home and got her own apartment.
“Since that time, Jane has just jumped right in and has expanded her outreach,” Johnson said. “She’s managed to get her work displayed in the local library. She’s holding an event in December, and she sold work to the mayor. She has managed to take that part of an idea, move forward to help herself and have her independence. It’s just amazing. She’s a great story, because she kept going and didn’t give up. I find her incredibly fascinating, because she fought her way out of the nursing home she was in to get her own place. She has her own apartment now and she still is struggling, but she does not let that get her down. She doesn’t give up and I find that so amazing, because that’s not easy. She inspires me so much, because she keeps going. Now her artwork is out there and she’s selling her work. That’s a win.”
Armstead spoke of Koza’s determination.
“Jane was honored at the Linden Public Library for her artwork. I bought some of her work and I gave her a donation,” Armstead said. “When you consider the challenges that Jane has faced over the years and her having such a positive attitude and outlook on life, we were delighted to be able to do something for her, because she could’ve thrown in the towel and quit, but she didn’t do that. When you’re disabled and unable to get around, she chose to continue to fight and be a productive person in our community.”
To view Koza’s print artwork and donate, visit https://helphopelive.org/campaign/9812/.
Photos Courtesy of Jane Koza