Jan Kwiatkowski, 59, has no idea how he wound up paralyzed from the neck down.
“I'm not sure if I got hit by a car, if someone hit me with a stick or if I fell,” the Polish emigre said through an interpreter at Bellevue Hospital. Kwiatkowski has been confined to a bed in Bellevue since the afternoon of Sept. 10, when his life changed while crossing a street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to get groceries, waking up later in the hospital.
Hospital officials say the trauma Kwiatkowski sustained indicates he was probably mowed down by a vehicle, but the cause of his injuries is less top of mind than his future: His spinal chord injuries were so severe, he is unable to move a toe or finger. He is fed through a tube that snakes directly into his stomach because his ability to swallow is impaired.
Kwiatkowski's wife died three years after the couple came to NYC in 2002 to work, sending money back to a daughter in Poland and to a son who now lives in England. A carpenter by trade, Kwiatkowski has no family to help him through his trials of infections and the grim prognosis of lifetime of total dependency.
Yet, Kwiatkowski’s plucky personality and indomitable spirit has spurred two kind hearted Manhattanites to help him realize his only wish: To return to his hometown of Ostroleka, Poland.
An internal medicine resident, Dr. Arthur Winer, 29, who encountered Kwiatkowski during his rotation, established a GoFundMe site that has so far raised $22,200 of a hoped-for $300,000 to pay the about $100,000 medevac costs and purchase needed adaptive equipment.
An athletic trainer born in Poland, Adam Kossakowski, 27, who met Kwiatkowski in Bellevue, started a Fundly account that has so far amassed $4,400. “We're targeting different populations for donations,” explained Kossakowski. Most of the money Kossakowski has raised came from Polish New Yorkers, many of whom attend St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Roman Catholic Church on the Lower East Side, whereas the GoFundMe site’s appeal is broader.
Both men cited Kwiatkowski's gracious élan and humor in a horrific situation as a motivating force in their desire to help. When asked how he was feeling one day, Kwiatkowski joked, “like a young god!” Kossakowski recalled.
“If you know anything about the Polish people and Polish history, you know they have endured a lot,” which has helped many Poles to brave suffering with bravura and aplomb, explained the Kossakowski. Anyone unable to sympathize with the plight of Kwiatkowski, who is undocumented, should “imagine being in his situation!” Kossakowski exclaimed.
Winer spent many hours on translated, long-distance phone calls before finding a facility in Ostroleka able to accommodate Kwiatkowski near his patient's daughter. He stressed his campaign was not to rid Bellevue of a costly patient, but an act of compassion born of the “personal connection” he had made with a man who, despite epic adversity “is in great spirits, able to joke and keep his humor up ... There is no way I would be sending him anywhere unless I could be guaranteed the correct facility," Winer said.
“Dr. Winer is like Mother Teresa!” Kwiatkowski cracked. The physician has since rotated to another service in the hospital, “but still, he comes to see me.”
Kwiatkowski is so grateful for the work of Winer, Kossakowski, Bellevue hospital staff, and other people on his behalf, “I'm not sure I shouldn't change my mind,” and stay, but he believes he will be happier hearing the language he knows and seeing the daughter he loves: “My daughter wants me to come back. I have grandchildren! Here, I suffer. There, I might be suffering, but I'll be closer to family.”
Besides, added Kwiatkowski, “I am dying for Polish television.”