A St. Louis police officer shot 20 years ago has died of cancer that could be linked to the gunshot wound that tore through his midsection, his widow said Thursday.
Jeff Kowalski, 51, died Wednesday at his home in Texas. He was shot in February 1987 while chasing two men. One of the men shot him with a pistol, hitting him in the abdomen. He was 29 at the time and was hospitalized for two months.
He suffered serious injuries to his pancreas, liver and stomach. The bullet also hit his inferior vena cava, the vein that carries deoxygenated blood from the lower part of the body to his heart. Doctors reconnected his stomach and intestines.
He eventually returned to duty, working in the narcotics unit and homicide. He was promoted to sergeant and retired in 2000 after 20 years with the department.
He was a thorough officer who worked despite being in pain, said Lt. Art Ruehl, who was a watch commander while Kowalski was a precinct sergeant.
"He always did a heck of a job," Ruehl said. "He was a very street-wise officer."
Kowalski and his family moved to Harlingen, Texas, about three years ago. This spring, he was diagnosed with cancer that attacked several organs damaged when he was shot, said his wife, Kim Kowalski, who also had been a St. Louis police officer.
He had been under hospice care at his home for less than a week, she said.
"I was hoping for another rally, but his body has been through so much through the years," she said.
The family struggled not only with his illnesses, but with financial woe, too.
Under a worker's comp agreement with the police department, Cannon Cochran Management Services Inc. pays 100 percent of all claims that stem from the gunshot wound. Jeff Kowalski also had been covered by the Blue Cross plan for police retirees, which required a $2,500 deductible and payment of 10 percent of the bills.
An oncologist said earlier this year that Kowalski's cancer developed in the areas where he was shot, but that "we can never know with any kind of certainty what was the cause."
Kim Kowalski said Thursday that no decision had been made as to whether his cancer treatment would be covered by the worker's comp agreement. But she did get some good news: The board of BackStoppers, the local organization that gives support to the families of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty, voted to give his family benefits.
Those benefits include help with mortgage payments, health insurance and education, said Ron Battelle, the group's executive director.
"We're going to take care of Kim and her family," he said. "We consider it an honor and a privilege to help them."
Jeff Kowalski died surrounded by family with a CD of "Ave Maria" playing, his wife said.
She said her husband was devoted to his family, and was a highly decorated leader who considered police work to be a calling.
"He was willing, obviously, to sacrifice his life," she said.
His is survived by his wife, as well as their daughters Madison, 15, and Mallory, 12. The Kowalskis also were raising 11-year-old Marissa, their niece, whose mother died.
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