(from SEIU/1199 News November 2001, online version: http://www.1199seiu.org/articles/article.cfm?ID=4373)


Farewell to Our Sister

Kathy Nguyen was an 1199 hero.

by Dennis Rivera, President

1199 President Dennis RiveraThe tragic death Oct. 31 of 1199er Kathy T. Nguyen from anthrax inhalation brought the crisis we have been living with since Sept. 11 a step closer to home. As I write this we have no idea where Nguyen was exposed to the anthrax spores that killed her.

Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital (MEETH), where she worked for 10 years as a supply clerk, tested negative. So did Nguyen's home and clothing. None of Nguyen's co-workers at MEETH tested positive, nor have 1199ers at any other institution.

For the moment, then, we have a troubling mystery over the source of Kathy Nguyen's exposure. But there's no mystery over where we should go from here.

Since Nguyen, 61, had no immediate relatives in New York, our union took over her funeral arrangements. Large numbers of her union family attended her wake and memorial mass at St. John Chrysostom, her South Bronx parish church, early this month.

Nguyen was remembered by co-workers, friends and neighbors as a hard working, caring and devoted person who never hesitated to go out of her way to help others.

ngyuen funeral"She was the most wonderful person I've ever met and the best friend I've ever had," long-time friend Gina Ramjassingh said of Nguyen .

Libby Pataki, wife of the New York governor, hailed Nguyen as "a brave and heroic woman who has become a symbol for healthcare workers."

"In honoring Cathy, we honor all healthcare workers who are among the finest of the public servants helping the city to rebuild from the ashes of Sept. 11," Mrs.Pataki said.

Nguyen was not a big name. She was a simple-hard-working woman who devoted herself to making the lives of those around her easier. She did noble work and led an honorable life. And, as I stressed at the memorial, we respectfully beg to differ with those who say she had no family. We are her family. And her memory will live forever in our hearts.

As we mourn the death of our sister, we also are preparing ourselves for our responsibilities as the front-line of defense for the public's health. We have to be able to identify the actual dangers and separate them from false rumors. To do this, we have to be knowledgeable about biochemical terrorist threats. We need to be there for our communities. We need to have the information necessary to handle any bioterrorist crisis.

Finally, we need to deal realistically with our own concerns and the concerns of our co-workers, friends and families. It's natural to be worried about what's going on. But we work in some of the best health care institutions in the world. We work in a city and state where public officials are working together to protect us. We belong to a union that is totally committed to our survival in this crisis.

The key to effectiveness here is shared information. That's why we and the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA) hastily put together an educational forum Nov. 2 on "Bioterrorism and New York's Health Care Industry." Some 2,000 members at the Javits Center forum heard Gov. George Pataki, state health commissioner Dr. Antonia Novello, GNYHA Pres. Ken Raske and myself address our front-line responsibilities in the present crisis.

Our common theme was the role of health care workers as community leaders equipped to use knowledge in the fight against disease and fear.

It was reassuring Nov. 2 to hear Gov. Pataki pledge to stay on top of measures to deal with real or threatened bioterrorism - and to share relevant information with us as soon as the state gets it.

It also was reassuring to see 2,000 members mobilized for this new effort. The members who turned out Nov. 2 understand that we must educate ourselves in order to educate and care for the people of New York. They are ready to meet this dramatic new challenge. So are our union and our industry. In times like these we really are one community honoring Kathy Nguyen's memory by protecting others from her fate.