Undaunted by the fury of Superstorm Sandy, visiting nurses from the United Federation of Teachers headed into the storm-strewn streets to reach patients in dire need.
They walked, stood in long lines for buses, climbed stairs in the dark, called nervous patients and brought medicine, flashlights and blankets. Much of lower Manhattan lost power; houses toppled on Staten Island; homes flooded or burned in Queens; subways flooded.
The region continues to struggle with dangerously low gasoline supplies, power shortages, lack of heat, cancelled trains. Yet the nurses go to work.
"This is the worst devastation I've ever seen," said Cynthia McDaniels, one of the UFT's 2,500 visiting nurses. The UFT is NYSUT's largest local, representing pre-K-12 and health care members in New York City.
"It's mind-boggling. You can't believe it's New York," said Anne Goldman, special nursing representative to the UFT and a NYSUT Board member. "Some homes and buildings are ice cold; some neighborhoods you can't drive in; but our visiting nurses are going forward and doing their work. They are there to offer support, even though many of them are victims of disaster themselves."
McDaniels tried desperately to get to the home of a patient who was dying. Lines for the bus were a block and half long and people were "like cattle ... knocking you over," she said. She tried to find a cab, but none came. Subways were flooded. So she headed back to the bus line.
"I was able to get the bus, but it took me three hours to get from the office to the patient's house," she said. The trip usually takes 30 minutes. Without working stoplights, the bus driver stopped at every intersection. By the time McDaniels arrived, her patient had died.
She comforted the family and helped them make plans. "There's life and death and in between we're just making a difference," McDaniels said.
"The perseverence and dedication to the task at hand shown by our visiting nurses is truly admirable," said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president who oversees health care for the union. "Many of them are without power themselves, but continue to answer the call to help those in need."
When Mary Ann Schroder, a UFT nurse with Visiting Nurse Service of New York, was told to evacuate Staten Island on Oct. 29, she was contacting patients and packing in haste at the same time.
The next day, she contacted patients until her computer battery died. It was two days before she was able to visit them. Meanwhile, her own house was ruined — the basement and first floor were flooded.
"We're all in the big mess here," she said. Twelve days after the storm, her neighborhood still had no power. Homes were toppled. Debris had collected in every street. Her home was creeping with mold.
She received help cleaning out her basement from a retired Staten Island firefighter, who now lives in Pennsylvania, and his son. "It had sludge and it smelled," she said.
Once UFT visiting nurse Alicia Schwartz determined her regular patients were OK, she devoted herself to caring for sick people in her complex of 1,600 apartments near the South Street Seaport. She tended to and called ambulances for a person with a tracheostomy tube, another who was out of insulin and a woman on the 20th floor who had fallen and gashed her head.
Nearly two weeks after the storm, none of the nine buildings in the complex had heat. "We got blankets delivered because everyone's cold. Meals on Wheels delivered food," Schwartz said.
"There are so many people here who have no electricity and no water. We have to reach them," she said, speaking from a small office powered by a generator. People could not bathe or flush toilets.
"I'm doing what I can to help out. That's what you do in a crisis," added Schwartz, who said one visiting nurse climbed 27 flights in the dark to see a patient.
Schwartz finally got out a week after the storm hit to attend to her own patients, riding the subway that had become operational again that day. She was happy to see her patients; their homes were warm. Then she went to a hair salon, just to get her hair washed.