Out of New York City’s 8.4 million people, union nurse and disaster responder Alicia Schwartz is the one being honored this week in the Big Apple as a Hometown Hero — the first nurse to be honored with the award for medical service.
Since 1984, Schwartz — a member of the NYSUT-affiliated United Federation of Teachers — has worked as a home-care nurse, riding subways, climbing stairs and walking all over the city to tend to sick people. And when Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico last year, Schwartz traveled to the island with colleagues from UFT and the American Federation of Teachers to find and take care of the sick and injured.
The Daily News earlier this year expanded its Hometown Heroes program beyond its traditional awards bestowed upon city educators and transit workers, adding new categories recognizing medical professionals, public service workers and city residents who inspire young people. Although Schwartz will not be at the awards ceremony, her UFT/Federation of Nurses colleagues will be, including nurse Ann Goldman, chair of NYSUT’s Health Care Professionals Council and a UFT vice president.
“There couldn’t be a more deserving representative of the work and services that UFT professionals bring to their jobs every day,” Goldman said Schwartz. “Her dedication to humanitarian needs is amazing. Her work in Puerto Rico shows she will let nothing stand in the way of providing care and compassion to people in need.”
While in Puerto Rico, Schwartz worked with crews setting up clinics and treating homebound people for a range of illnesses, including scabies, asthma, leptospirosis, conjunctivitis, and high blood pressure. In daily trips to remote areas, they spent several weeks bringing care, medicine and hope to people — many who were stranded in locations without electricity, and who had no access to stores or pharmacies.
Schwartz’s work in helping hurricane victims didn’t end once she returned to New York, either. Upon arriving home and returning to her job, she began a campaign to send solar lights to families throughout Puerto Rico, many of whom were left in roofless homes without electricity.
The Visiting Nurse Service of New York wanted to honor Schwartz’s volunteer outreach with a monetary award, but since it was earmarked for nursing study, she declined it. Schwartz explained that people in Puerto Rico needed lights. She was then given a Lillian Wald $1,500 award in honor of New York’s first home care nurse. She donated the money for solar lights, and as of now, 150 lights have been sent to families under Schwartz’s steerage.
This past summer, Schwartz — who also was honored by NYSUT with its 2018 Health Care Professional of the Year award — returned to Puerto Rico, staying with her father, Felix, and mother, Demitria, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
While there, she scouted areas to help a U.S. doctor find locations to set up Telemed programs under which people can communicate with physicians in other locations through technology, writing a proposal to purchase an abandoned school for that need. Her long-range goals include setting up mental health services in Puerto Rico to treat depression in those traumatized by the hurricane and its aftermath.
This isn’t the first time Schwartz has been called a hero. In July, she was honored with a Hometown Hero award by the New York Post. She also retired that month, with the goal of doing more volunteer work, and is living in Florida and New York with her husband Larry.
“I’m seeing how I can get to certain parts of Florida on the upper west side hit hard by the recent hurricane,” she said.
Schwartz is quite emphatic about not considering herself a hero. Instead, she turns the spotlight upon the Teamster union volunteers who cleared trees and rocks from mudslides out of the roads in Puerto Rico so her crew could get to people after the hurricane. Specifically, she recalled a union worker who spent a month filtering water from the river so people could drink it.
“Those are my heroes,” she said. “I’m not a hero. It’s my duty to help. It’s in my blood. We should all help each other. It’d be a better world.”