RHINA VALENTIN, ENTERTAINER, PRODUCER, MEDIATOR
“We need to focus on our mental health.
The pandemic exaggerated our fears.”
- Rhina Valentin, entertainer, producer, meditator
Harlem is. . . Healing celebrates Rhina Valentin, entertainer and producer, television host, “la Reina Del Barrio,” school “healing ambassador,” and transcendental meditation advocate – a “hyphenate,” as she calls herself. Her very varied works through the pandemic and continuing now invite us to start our community’s healing with self-attention.
Through work as a “peace journalist” to bring diverse voices to screen and live participatory performance and her efforts to promote personal meditation on social media and in the parks, the optimistic Rhina re-creates efforts toward community healing as expressions of mindfulness and a joy in survival that recognizes nature and our very being.
“Everything I am involved in references mindfulness and self-awareness,” she explains, “Covid helped teach us that it is important for us to be present in everything we do and to value our very existence. . . I identify as a healer. Covid altered our perception of everything from isolation to nature to the air we breathe.”
Her emphasis on mental health as individuals and as a larger community fit well in this continuing series of profiles to highlight local people seeking to help Harlem heal from disproportionate effects of the pandemic and turmoil from social justice. “We need to give voice to our urban community, to help people be seen,” something that was lost amidst pandemic, she says. “We
have taken on more than our share of hardship in the urban community. . . Our neighborhoods are not tended to they way they should be.”
Her formulas for addressing hardship have included her open television spots on Bronx TV to let entertainers share feelings as well as performance, partnering with others for events in Marcus Garvey and Central Parks towards highlighting survival during Covid and a reliance on meditation efforts, serving as a healing ambassador at her daughter’s East Harlem school and working with teachers citywide on healing programs. With Lincoln Center, she created, staged and starred in “Sancocho,” a show with band, ballerina, tap dancer, jazz singer and bachatera to talk about self-protecting during Covid with soup and isolation.
Raised in East Harlem and trained at the William Esper Studio, she has performed in Fresh Prince of Bel Air, served a residency at Nuyorican Poets Café Avant Garde theater and runs La Reina Productions. Her commitment locally is to spotlight emerging performers. At Bronx TV, her OPEN Fridays offer “peace journalism” to advocate for arts, culture, entertainment, women’s empowerment, mental health awareness. She is on the Bronx Council on the Arts Board of Directors, and has won recognition for a focus on domestic violence, as a Creative New Yorker for New York by Citizens Committee for NYC and as a Change Agent from Color Magazine.
Rhina explains, “The beauty of being born and raised in New York is that you get to experience different cultures in your upbringing. I liken this experience to the Caribbean dish sancocho. The beauty of sancocho is that it’s a slow-cooked dish which harmonizes distinct flavors and unique ingredients to become something irresistibly delicious.”
FIRST GRADUATES, CUNY MEDICAL SCHOOL
“We’re working to find out how to make help available in Harlem and underserved communities.”
— Vincent Boudreau, president, CCNY
Harlem is . . . HEALING is celebrating the first 70 graduates of the CUNY Medical School, who were graduated early to join overworked hospital staff members in dealing with a surge of coronavirus cases. CUNY’s program at City College is among the nation’s most racially diverse and is tied to a unique social mission to provide better quality health care for underserved communities.
To help in the struggle against the coronavirus, the first 70 graduating doctors at the two-year-old City University of New York School of Medicine are being tapped early to go into local hospitals to join the front-line troops in a war against disease. These graduates are local heroes. “Coronavirus illustrates why this is necessary. There is increasing data to show that communities underserved in other respects are also under increased pressure from this virus,” explained Vincent Boudreau, president of City College. “We want doctors who not only look like the communities they serve but come from them.”
More than half these training doctors are of color, with 35% Black and 18% Latino. Overall, 63% are women and 80% are immigrants or children of immigrants. The CUNY medical school, a seven-year program including undergrad studies, recruits top New York City high school students, many from underrepresented minority groups. Now the program is paying off locally, in a time of pandemic.
Among the students, meet Shahid Dodson, who noted, “In the (Brooklyn) community I’m from, I never had a physician, someone I could ask questions. Now when I see patients in the hospital, they’ll say, ‘You come from where I come from.’ It makes a difference. It gives me purpose.” Gabrielle Cintron from Queens added, “I grew up in a Black and Hispanic neighborhood and I never saw a Black or Hispanic pediatrician in my life. Mailkel Kamel said,“This program is trying to bring in more people from underrepresented backgrounds like me. They want to fix the disparities in medicine. That message really drew me in.” Malik, who came from Egypt as an infant, noted that his program included courses on health disparities, which are not part of a traditional medical school curriculum.
President Boudreau also reported that CUNY is opening a virus testing facility capable of almost-instant tests, its campus radio station is broadcasting safety information, a CUNY researcher is working to rehab older ventilators into automated equipment, and civil engineering graduates are being recruited to build out more field hospitals.
SADIE TRELEVEN, NURSE HARLEM HOSPITAL
“I remember thinking, ‘This is our reality now.’”
Harlem is . . . HEALING is celebrating Sadie Treleven, 26, an ICU nurse at Harlem Hospital for a year, as a living demonstration of heroics and healing. She has been committed to the constant, grueling 12-hour shifts, wrestling with protective gear, and attending to two and three patients simultaneously.
Sadie Trevelen is one of those front-line workers celebrated in the 7 p.m. clapping around New York City and a living demonstration of heroics and healing. “I was one of the only people to be with that patient over the last three days, and now they were going to pass away. . . . I felt very adamant that I wanted to be in the room,” Trevelen told her hometown Tacoma, WA newspaper. “Everything hit me at once. I was standing there, looking out the window at New York City, and this bustling city was shut down.” The new reality for her: “If we have an open bed, it won’t be open for very long,” she said.
She wanted to be a nurse, in part, to offer emotional support to sick people. So much of the job is to do with caring, consoling, nurturing the patient, and their families. Those tasks have become crucial in a time when contagion keeps families from patients. The amount of death is ... I don’t know ... overwhelming at times,” Treleven said. “People are getting really, really sick very quickly, and not everyone is making it. … You almost don’t have time to grieve.”
Her day ends with a bike ride to a hotel that is closer than her Brooklyn apartment before the night turns to day and there are yet more new patients waiting.
DR. STEVEN CORWIN
President and CEO, New York-Presbyterian Hospital
"It takes extraordinary effort . . .
We're going to keep swinging as long as we can."
Harlem is . . . HEALING is celebrating Dr. Steve Corwin, CEO and president of New York-Presbyterian Hospital. An internist and cardiologist who completed training in internal medicine and cardiology at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and was named to the faculty of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Corwin was forced to act nimbly to keep doctors and nurses protected through shortages of protective gear and to increase the capacity of his hospitals as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the ultimate job of managing resources – medical staff, medical supplies and intensive care beds. For Dr. Corwin, as with other hospital administrators in the city, the disease and its effects have proved that healing doesn’t happen without a lot of adjustment and local heroics, the point of this local heroes campaign.
The hospital’s head of urology is working night shifts in the emergency room, the doctor chairing orthopedics is picking up shifts in the intensive care unit, conference rooms are being turned into makeshift intensive-care units. "We're asking people to go above and beyond and to use their M.D. license like they haven't had to before," Corwin said of his staff. "You're asking people to do things they've never done."
At New York-Presbyterian, one of the largest and top-ranked hospital systems in the U.S., 58% of beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients, and t00 patients were in ICUs on ventilators. The 10 hospitals in the system normally have more than 4,000 beds.
Like other hospital administrators, Corwin sees that the delay in full government response resulted in severe effects on hospitals. "It is heart-wrenching to see an otherwise healthy 40-year-old require ventilatory support because of this virus. It is heart-wrenching to see a child get it. It is heart-wrenching to see somebody taken out in the prime of their life and die from this," Corwin told USA Today. He told MSNBC that the hospital has made substantial efforts to protect hospital staff from mixing directly with other emergency service technicians and walk-in patients “We are presuming infection from all people coming in, and are protecting our people,” he said. "It takes extraordinary effort, and if it's up to us, we're going to make sure that we keep swinging as long as we possibly can.”
DR. CALVIN SUN
Emergency Room Doctor
“The health care system is bursting at the seams.”
Harlem is . . . HEALING is celebrating Dr. Calvin Sun, an emergency room doctor who is helping the community to heal and whose tales of his experiences in emergency rooms have helped highlight the challenges he and other front-line health professionals face. Dr. Sun, who studied at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Jacobi Medical Center where he also served as Director of Resident Wellness. He now works as an attending physician at various emergency departments, and also is a choreographer and photographer.
Dr. Calvin Sun is an assistant clinical professor of emergency medicine at Mount Sinai, but also serves at different hospitals, stepping in for other doctors who have contracted the coronavirus. His experience reflects that of many medical staffers who literally are trying to heal, the central mission of this project. “I’m seeing EMS stretchers lined up down the block, waiting up to five hours to get into the emergency room, waiting rooms filled with people coughing and packed in, not social distancing. That’s the first minute,” Dr. Sun told MSNBC. He worries about the patients waiting, the medical staff getting sick themselves and the guilt that everyone is feeling about not being able to do enough.
He is angry that the medical staff is not provided adequate protective gowns and masks, forcing nurses and doctors to wonder whether to continue working. “The emergency room is like a game of Tetris where stretchers are lined up in the hallways one to two feet away.”
DR. DARA KASS
“I feel empowered by my own antibodies.”
Harlem is. . . Healing celebrates Dr. Dara Kass of New York-Presbyterian Hospital. – a living example of local heroics that this campaign is reflecting. Dr. Kass had been an attending physician at Staten Island University Hospital, ran medical school programs in the emergency room at NYU Langone Medical Center, became Director of Equity and Inclusion and was associate professor at Columbia University Irving Medical Center before moving to New York-Presbyterian in 2018.
After treating coronavirus patients at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Dr. Kass became infected herself, as she had feared. She survived, started seeing patients again online during her quarantine, and has remained outspoken about the emotional struggles and lack of equipment that beset of her front-line hospital colleagues. Before she contracted the disease herself, she had sent her children to stay with her parents in New Jersey. “How can we expect health care workers to not hug and kiss their families? But then how can we expect them not to be exposed?” she asked . “The choice I made was to not have to look my kids in the eye and say, ‘I won’t hug and kiss you right now.’”
What she had not anticipated is that she would contract the illness in the first weekend that the hospital took in coronavirus patients. The hospital’s emergency areas felt “like a pressure cooker,” with all on edge about what the surge would look like, she told a reporter later. Interviewed several days after her recovery, she said, “Right now I’m getting up and literally thanking God for my breath. The same advice I’ve given to my patients is the advice I’m giving myself, which is as long as you can get through this breath you’re OK.”
Her house was cleaned and sanitized, and her kids came home to Brooklyn. She has returned to work. An antibody test showed she was eligible to donate plasma for Covid-19 clinical trials using transfusions as treatment. “Because I’m immune, I feel like I have a sense of responsibility,” she said. “I feel empowered by my own antibodies.”
DR. LENA GREEN
Executive Director, HOPE Center
“This critical time really has had a long-lasting and profound impact on people.”
Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates Dr. Lena L. Green, a social worker and executive director of the HOPE Center Harlem, which has been offering a range of free mental health and relationship services to community members through First Corinthian Baptist Church.
Dr. Green, a Harlem native who previously was Deputy Director of the Office of Substance Use, Policy, Planning and Monitoring at NYC’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), also is founder and executive director of The Akira Center, Inc. a free community-based social-services program focusing on fatherhood, healthy relationships and mental health; she is a member of the Mayor’s Taskforce for Responsible Fatherhood working with New York City agencies, earned degrees from New York University (NYU) and University of Massachusetts at Amherst, with certificates in Advance Clinical Practice and substance treatment. Dr. Green serves on several boards throughout the northeast.
Over these several months of pandemic and social tension, those services have moved online, and mixed with presentations on advice about mindful meditation and the search for joy. “The pandemic has exacerbated the symptoms of the discrepancies in our community,” she said, affecting the emotional health of individuals and the area. “These times are shedding light on the depths of what has been true for a long time in institutional racism, in disproportionate lack of services, in illness and, unfortunately in deaths.”
Since late summer, Dr. Green, has promoted programs dealing with substance abuse, fatherhood and families, relationships and well-being through the church congregation, online outreach, and with alliances with Morningside Park and the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University.
As word of free clinical services is getting out – virtual medication and check-ins are offered twice a week on its Facebook page, the Center has a waiting list, which it quickly addresses between its two staff members and trained volunteers. “Individuals and the community may struggle at times,” and the Center offers tools to address depression, anxieties and stress. Sometimes issues are practical, like stress over keeping socially distant in crowded apartments.
“Pollution creates more danger for those with respiratory illness.”
Harlem is . . . HEALING is celebrating We Act, a Harlem environmental group, for work in connecting the underlying environmental factors, including air pollution, with the disproportionate effects of coronavirus on Black and Brown communities, and leading a continuing information campaign.
That the coronavirus is striking urban areas and African Americans harder than the general population has been of little surprise to those at We Act, which has renewed its efforts to show the links between the disease and pollution. In interviews, outreach to politicians and links on its social media, We Act has continued to be a source of important healing information for the community.
The rate of childhood asthma in New York’s Central Harlem has been estimated at four times the national average, notes Lubna Ahmed, director of environmental health for the group. The coronavirus is aiming at people who may have been living their entire lives under circumstances of increased pollution, not only outdoors but also inside, particularly in public housing where mold, pests or leaks can create poor environmental conditions. She argues that environmental inequities create those underlying conditions that make COVID-19 deadly for our community.
We Act has been distributing links to her interviews along with general coronavirus help information. The organization also sponsors virtual events, like a digital “run” to mark Earth Day, has been calling local residents to check on them, and is developing online learning modules for school children.