The Unstoppable Sylvia Lask, Age 82
Story by: Dorian Block and Floor Flurij
Photography by: Floor Flurij
It is hard to imagine that there is anyone like Sylvia Lask, say those who know her well.
She takes Amtrak (alone with her walker) back and forth from New York City to Albany at least monthly, if not weekly. She rides the 2:45 p.m. train every time and knows the conductor (“He’s been working for Amtrak for 25 years, and I’ve been going for 40.”).
In her 70s, she slept overnight on a bench in the New York state legislative office building to help pass Timothy’s law, a bill heavily contested by insurance companies, which mandates that New York insurance carriers cover mental health services just as they do other health services (“When I see the one Democrat who voted against it, I still give him a dirty look,” she says).
She is the chair or member of many committees - the Mental Health Association in New York State, the Community Advisory Board that oversees Jacobi and North Central Bronx hospitals, the Board of Visitors of the Bronx Psychiatric Center and the Bronx Democratic Party Committee.
She has been a counselor for groups of psychiatric patients for 25+ years, although she has taken breaks in recent years when her health has gotten in the way.
Her ever-present motivation is her adult daughter, Vicki, who lives with mental illness, and who Sylvia still cares for and worries about even though she is in her 50s. Sylvia is further motivated by appalling late night visits to state psychiatric hospitals that she took with Congressman Eliot Engel many years ago. They witnessed patients lying on the floor, being given cups of pills to swallow with no water. And then there’s a friend who completed suicide when Sylvia was in her 20s, and the current, rising suicide rate.
Sylvia is not subtle.
She was determined to wait until after her son’s bar mitzvah to get a divorce from her husband. But as the story goes, she had the band play Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” four times for extra emphasis at the reception.
For 32 years, she sat on the community board representing Co-op City, where she lived and raised her children. A few years ago, she moved to Riverdale to federal housing for low-income seniors, which was a necessary blessing, but also entirely disorienting, as the neighborhood feels a world away from life in Co-op city.
Whenever she sees a letter addressed to “Riverdale” (the Bronx’s wealthiest neighborhood), she crosses it out and writes “Bronx” instead.
“There is no reason to think that this is not the Bronx, they do not need to think that Riverdale is any better.”
Sylvia’s one-bedroom apartment is a tribute to her life. There are hundreds of pictures on the walls –family, alive and dead, friends and politicians all mingling together, paintings, Judaica and images of Israel and dozens of plaques of the awards she has won.
Within this personal gallery are several photos of Sylvia with the Clintons. Sylvia campaigned for and knew Hillary Clinton when she was a New York State Senator. Sylvia was a New York State Delegate for Hillary at the 2004 Democratic Convention. She attended the inaugurations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. She now campaigns through phone banking for Hillary in the Bronx.
We first meet Sylvia on a summer day in 2015 in her living room. She walks us through her calendar.
Most important is an upcoming visit to Albany to lobby the Governor to sign a bill which would give people the option of donating some of their annual tax refund to mental health services.
She is also looking forward to an upcoming “Girl’s Night Out.” The “girls,” are a group of longtime friends, ranging in age from 55 to 99. They are all Democrats and all civically engaged. They get together, usually at Giovanni’s, an Italian restaurant near Coop City, for each of their birthdays and for gift giving in December. Sylvia speaks to some of them daily.
The eldest, Blanche, is 99, and Sylvia is looking forward to her 100th birthday in March. The group is planning a party to be hosted at Jacobi Hospital, where Sylvia, Blanche and Emily, one of the other “girls,” all sat on the board for more than 35 years.
Sylvia says too many people consider age a barrier and are surprised by how she and Blanche have kept going.
“I haven’t let it conquer me,” she says. “It has slowed me down a little. Not a lot.”
Depending on the day and week, Sylvia's work, health and family needs shuffle and move from the background to the foreground and back again.
She has a “bucket list” which she is working on. Returning to Israel is at the top. Seeing her childhood friends in Detroit is another. She must return to work to earn some money to pay for both trips.
Politically, she has her sights set on influencing the next President.
“We must have better services for mental health, and a Democrat in the White House. Maybe in the opposite order," she says. "We can work on her and get better services for mental health.”
Three days after we first met her, Sylvia wakes in the middle of the night when an abscess on her side bursts open spontaneously.
Blood and pus pours out. Sylvia is frightened. She calls the round-the-clock security service in her building. They call her an ambulance.
Sylvia welcomes August from a rehab floor at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, following emergency surgery to close the abscess and a weeklong hospital stay.
When we visit during her first week there, she is still in great pain. She had been doing physical therapy sessions in the morning but skipping her scheduled occupational therapy sessions in the afternoon.
When a nurse came, twice a day, to change her wound dressings, Sylvia demanded to have someone’s hand nearby to squeeze.
And yet through the pain, Sylvia is still on the phone, greeting people and getting work done.
There are calls from her son, her daughter, friends from the boards she sits on and her daily calls from Emily and almost-100-year-old Blanche.
On the phone with one friend who called her from vacation, Sylvia said: “I guess I was a little surprised that I had not heard from anyone on the board. Yesterday was a terrible day, I was nauseous, depressed and in a lot of pain. It looks much better today!”
A call with her daughter Vicki is filled with instructions of what to bring her from her apartment. Vicki lives in Brooklyn and was regularly traveling to the Bronx to visit her mother.
“In the hall closet there is another box of panty liners…in the hall closet….Yes… bring the whole box…. And there is a little bag in my purse… a little bag… and a pink bag in my bedroom…no it is a pink bag….A pink bag….Yes…and…Listen to me, this is very important….You have to bring my dentures…listen to me…I have some teeth, Vicki… but I need my dentures…just pour out the water….Just bring the dentures in the container…no I will clean them myself…”
After hanging up, Sylvia exhales.
“I have to repeat everything,” she says. “She told me she was crying all night…She is afraid I am going to die.”
As long as she needs wound care and dressing changes twice a day, insurance will pay for Sylvia to stay in rehab (for up to 100 days). Sylvia says she wants out the sooner the better. She opts to eat all of her meals alone bedside.
The “girls” decide to postpone their night out until Sylvia would be up and moving again.
During a meeting of the nurse, therapists and Sylvia’s son by phone in Maryland, they ask Sylvia: what is her goal of rehabilitation?
“I want to go home” she says emphatically.
A few days later, still in rehab, Sylvia plugs her iPad in to charge.
She wants to show the therapists in the facility photos of her beloved 15-year-old grandson Ron (“It’s not because he is my grandson, he is just so handsome!” she said).
When her iPad turns on, it alerts Sylvia that she had 197 new emails. Sylvia had been out of contact for two weeks and work awaits.
Sylvia’s daughter Vicki is still petrified that her mother would die. Her fear has become so debilitating that she allowed Sylvia to speak to her social worker. Sylvia also calls her son Marc to ask him to call Vicki to try and calm her down as well.
“I can not get out of bed and go to Brooklyn,” she tells him.
The dressing on Sylvia’s wound must now be changed three times a day.
Her discharge date has been pushed back a week.
Blanche calls Sylvia as she does everyday and tells her like it is, by phone.
“This is the old lady checking up on you,” she says. “Getting old is not always fun, you also suffer.”
In therapy, Sylvia sits on a machine that looks like a stationary bike, but she uses her arms to cycle. She finishes the 12 minutes she is assigned. She also practices walking with her walker and getting in and out of the nursing home’s model car.
She also walks up three steps, the first steps she’s walked since being here.
In the afternoon, she opens a drawer and gets out a button, to put on her vest. Sylvia is not Sylvia without a button on, as she has a collection of over a thousand. This one, a recent favorite says: “Well behaved women seldom make history.”
Just as September begins, Sylvia finally returns home.
Her son, Marc, and grandson, Ron, come to town to help with the transition.
“I don’t have to fight the world’s fights (like my mother),” says Marc. “I spend enough time just caring for my family, providing a decent quality of life.”
He says his mother has always been there for him and his son, especially given her limited financial resources and life as a single, working parent.
Marc says that his father (Sylvia’s ex-husband) who is 85, lives a slower, “more typical” retired life in Florida. He volunteers for the neighborhood watch.
“He is content to just be,” he says.
Sylvia has been home for a week, she still has an aid and her wound is leaking, but she is determined to get herself together to get back to her work.
First on her agenda: hair and nails.
Her morning nurse canceled at the last minute, so Sylvia and her leaky wound are going to the salon (“I am not used to running my life by a nurse!” she says) . She can not wear pants over the wound, so she settles on a house dress.
The obstacles continue. Access-a-ride is 45 minutes late, and the driver is silent and unapologetic when he pulls up.
She finally arrives at the Co-op City salon where everyone knows her name and where she can see friends coming in and out.
She tells her hairdresser Nora of her ordeal and stay in rehab. They both talk about their families.
She settles into the chair for a pedicure and relaxes, as she rarely does.
Sylvia helps organize the annual September 11 memorial ceremony in the Bronx every year.
Despite ongoing pain and her reliance on a wheelchair for part of it, Sylvia is back. She greets everyone she knows and introduces each speaker.
She equates the memorial to her feelings about her own relatives who were killed and who survived concentration camps during World War II.
“If we don’t continue with this, people will forget about it. It’s like if we don’t remind people about the Holocaust people are going to forget about it. And then it will happen again. It’s important that 9/11 is part of our history.”
In November, Sylvia is with her son in Maryland for Thanksgiving when she gets news that New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Mental Health Tax Check-off Bill.
The bill had been the idea of Sylvia and her colleagues at the Mental Health Association in New York State and was then championed by mental health advocates around the state.
With the governor’s signing, mental health is now one of 11 choices on state tax forms which people can choose to contribute to. Since creation in 1982, these funds have raised $51 million for the various causes.
Sylvia sees this victory as another step toward eliminating the stigma of mental illness 40 years since she started.
On Christmas Eve, Sylvia is in a panic because Vicki has been in psychiatric care and supervision for six weeks. They want to discharge her tomorrow, Christmas day, but Sylvia needs more time to clean Vicki’s apartment. She has arranged to bring her personal cleaning lady to organize and throw things out before Vicki gets home.
In other bad news, Blanche is ill and in recovery on the same floor at the Hebrew Home where Sylvia stayed earlier in the year. Sylvia has visited and still calls Blanche daily.
Just as stressful for Sylvia is the presidential election. Sylvia has been phone banking for Hillary out of the Bronx’s Democratic Committee office. While her loyalty to Hillary goes back decades (her son's support of Bernie Sanders is "incomprehensible"), she is most distressed by the hateful speak of Donald Trump, who appears to be nearing the Republican nomination.
If Donald Trump is elected president, she threatens that she will leave the country and move to Israel.
“He does not even care what he says,” she says. “And America has elected idiots as president before.”
On New Year’s Eve, Blanche Comras-Rifkin dies at age 99.
The 99 and the New Year’s Eve death make her long life seem particularly cut short, just left incomplete. It is also ironically the anniversary of the death of Sylvia’s own mother.
For Sylvia, who has endured losing the majority of her peers, Blanche is a particularly crushing loss. The two have motivated each other, spoken daily and worked together for years.
When asked whether they were more connected by their personal life or their professional life, Sylvia says: “We were most bonded by our love for each other.”
Blanche had called Sylvia from the nursing home the day before she died, and Blanche had told her she had even taken a few steps that day.
Two hundred and fifty people attend Blanche’s funeral (“You never saw so many people,” Sylvia says).
Blanche was a former longtime employee of Mental Hygiene Legal Services and still served on the advisory board to Jacobi Hospital, on Community Board 11 and on the Board of Directors of Bronx House. Eulogies were delivered by her son, her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, by former Attorney General and Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams, Congressman Eliot Engel, and State Senator Jeff Klein.
When Robert Abrams saw Sylvia at Blanche’s funeral, she says he said, “We should have a meeting of all of the reformers here.”
On January 19, the Bronx gets a new psychiatric hospital.
It is the first center in the Bronx specifically dedicated to providing in-patient and out-patient psychiatric services.
For Sylvia, who has championed efforts to get a new hospital for decades, the best feature about the new building is that it is new.
“The place was dilapidated,” she said of the old psychiatric hospital. “You fix one leak and you get another leak. Now every patient has their own room.”
Bronx Assemblyman Peter Rivera, who, at one time, oversaw the New York State Assembly's committee responsible for mental health, had squirreled away money for the new hospital.
Sylvia says that he came to a meeting just prior to leaving office in 2012 to remind her and her committee that the money would still be there once all of the plans and approvals for the hospital had time to fall into place. He urged them to make sure it did not get spent on anything else.
The day of the hospital’s ribbon cutting ceremony is also Sylvia’s grandson Ron’s 16th birthday. She had never missed celebrating his birthday with him in Maryland since his birth.
“He just has to understand,” she says. “I have waited 40 years for this!”
One of the strongest roles that Sylvia has played is offering continuity and longevity to see projects and legislation through when elected officials and employees come and go. By remaining involved, she has also gotten to see the results of her labor come to fruition.
She is hoping that she can spend her grandson's 17th birthday with him at Hillary’s inauguration in Washington, which would fall the during same week, if she wins.
At Jacobi Hospital’s February Legislative Forum, Sylvia misses Blanche. She sits at a front table and keeps one seat open, telling people who come by “This is Blanche’s seat.”
Only one elected official shows up to the day’s events and several of the members of the hospital’s Community Advisory Board are also not there. Sylvia is mad.
“They are going to hear from me,” she says. “I guarantee you.”
Nevertheless, the interim director of Jacobi, Christopher Fugazy, greets Sylvia with hugs and kisses. As does nearly everyone else who enters the room.
When one of the speakers speaks about financial developments for the city’s hospital system, he names several politicians involved. Sylvia murmurs the names of everyone he forgets, but then says aloud: “You got the important ones.”
“She can’t help herself,” Chris, the Jacobi director says.
On February 19, the “girls” gather to celebrate Sylvia’s 82nd birthday at Liebman’s, the last Kosher deli in the Bronx.
“Let’s start with the birthday girl. Do you want corn beef?” says one friend.
Sylvia, who is surrounded by flowers gifted to her, scoops piles of salads on to everyone’s plates.
They talk about their families, about recent meetings and they pass around photos.
Blanche’s daughter Madelyn joins the “girls” for dinner, as does Sylvia’s daughter Vicki.
“I really believe that Blanche is looking down and smiling at us,” Sylvia says. She says Blanche was the happiest when they were all together.
Sylvia brings a special cupcake from Albany that Blanche had always loved for the girls to share.
Congressman Eliot Engel coincidently comes in to the deli to get take-out food with his wife. He wishes Sylvia, his dear friend, a happy birthday.
The two met around 40 years ago, when Eliot was campaigning door-to-door for Democratic politicians and Sylvia had many things to say. He asked her to join the Democratic Club and they later went on to work together and become friends.
As the dinner ends, the “girls” toast their missing friend and Blanche’s daughter says:
“I want to thank all of you. You have been very important for Blanche,” she says. “She asked me to pay for your dinner.”
In April, Sylvia has returned to work running groups at the Gateway Counseling Center.
She works three days a week from 9 a.m. to noon.
She wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to get herself ready, take Access-a-Ride and arrive in time for breakfast at the center which she helps prepare. After breakfast, she leads two groups, one at 10 a.m. and one at 11 a.m. Her clients are middle-aged and have psychiatric problems. Every group has a topic. Sylvia most likes and feels comfortable leading discussion about the news and politics. She is home by 1:30 p.m.
Sylvia enjoys the work and needs the money, but she is exhausted by it.
She is saving in order to take several trips. First, she plans to go to Detroit in the fall to see her childhood friends from her Zionist youth group, who she is still in touch with 75 years later. She tells a story of finding out that one of them recently died before her next visit (“I will not let that happen again!”)
She also wants to go to California to meet her niece’s new baby. And her “bucket list” dream, as she calls it, is to return to Israel. Sylvia does not support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions, but she still sees Israel as the fulfillment of a dream of a homeland for the Jewish people. Her father fought for the creation of Israel, and her family who died in the Holocaust would have had a safe haven there.
And, of course, she has to pay for her trips to Albany.
In May, Sylvia leads The Annual Jacobi Conference on Mental Health.
This year’s topic is “Preventing Teen Suicide.” It is dedicated to Blanche.
Sylvia welcomes everyone from the podium. She begins by asking everyone to look at the person next to them in the eyes. When everyone, giggling a little, has done that, she says:
"Half of us deal with mental illness during our lives."
The audience is immediately silent and the tone for the event is set.
Dr. Maryann Popiel, a Bronx psychiatrist, shares that the suicide rate has increased by 24% since 1996. Eight percent of adolescents attempt suicide.
“It’s an epidemic,” she says.
Interspersed between the grim stats, are many love notes to Sylvia, which she unabashedly accepts.
Councilman Andrew Cohen opens by saying that Sylvia’s leadership has made all of the progress on mental health possible.
The interim director of Jacobi, Christopher Fugazy highlights the power of Sylvia and Blanche’s joint commitment to this work.
“Sylvia has been an advocate for mental health, the Bronx and Jacobi Hospital for over 40 years. Sylvia and Blanche, they were quite a force together. Most of the time we did not know whether to hide or to embrace them.”
And Tom O’Clair, the father of Timothy in “Timothy’s Law” opens by saying: “What I have learned over the years: If Sylvia asks, say yes!”
When trying to get Timothy’s law passed, he says there was a “Santa Claus” who called every legislator who had not signed the law.
He winks at Sylvia, saying: “We don’t know who that was.”
And Sylvia replies loudly, laughing: “Yes, we know who that was!”
She also ends the conference with a warning.
“There was one assemblymen who voted against Timothy’s law,” she says. “Thank God he wasn’t a Bronx man, because he would not have survived.”
Keep following Exceeding Expectations for updates on Sylvia.