Maureen Anne McCarthy, who for decades served as president of the nursing union she co-founded while continuing to care for patients, died last month after a five-year fight with kidney cancer.
She was 67.
Her colleagues and family credit her with bringing attention to the issue of nurse to patient ratios — the number of patients that nurses oversee, which advocates say affects patient care. She served as president of the New York Professional Nurses Union from its founding in 1984 until about a week before her death on Feb. 4. Four years after founding the union, she led a six-day nursing strike at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan that persuaded management to agree to a contract intended to improve patient care.
“She was a working nurse her whole life, so she knew the issues, she knew the problems,” said Kathleen Flynn, who co-founded the union with McCarthy. “She was able to get it done at the negotiating table … she was a great speaker and could inspire people.”
McCarthy, of Manhattan, grew up in Malverne, the second of five children born to Anne and Gerard McCarthy, a homemaker and a dairy company manager, respectively. After finishing Catholic school and graduating from Malverne High School, she went on to the Lenox Hill School of Nursing in New York City where she graduated in 1970 and began a 43-year career as a nurse.
“Nursing was absolutely her passion and advocating for patients was something that really motivated Maureen,” said her sister, Gina Cirenza of Garden City.
In the early 1980s, she and Flynn decided that the union representing them at Lenox Hill Hospital, 1199 S.E.I.U., wasn’t doing enough and they started their own. McCarthy and Flynn both took night classes at Fordham University School of Law because they thought it would help them negotiate better contracts. McCarthy graduated in 1991 and was admitted to the New York State Bar Association in 1992.
“Maureen felt it would be better to be on equal footing with the lawyers she’s negotiating with,” Flynn said.
It was the second degree she received while working full-time as a nurse, the first being an undergraduate degree in sociology at Marymount Manhattan College.
In 1988, McCarthy led the union in a successful strike to get a new contract that put limits on nurse-to-patient ratios and ended mandatory overtime.
“It creates a much more safe environment for nurses and was pretty groundbreaking at the time,” said Rebecca Hawkins, executive director of the New York Professional Nurses Union.
Though she remained a nurse, the legal education allowed her to represent the nurses while drafting enforceable contract language, Hawkins said.
Maureen T. White, senior vice president at Northwell Health who sat on the opposite side of the negotiating table with McCarthy, said she “admired her leadership” as “a true advocate for the nurses” and for patient care.
She never wed, but family was important. For years McCarthy held family get-togethers at her summer home on Cape Cod, and would bring the family together during the Christmas season to see Broadway musicals.
“She always was organizing our events that brought us together,” another sister, Patricia Andronica of Kings Park, said.
At her 2012 retirement celebration, McCarthy told her colleagues “what an honor it was for her to use her hands to comfort and to care for people when they were critically sick,” Andronica said.
McCarthy is also survived by her brother, Gerard X. McCarthy Jr. of Sayville.
Her funeral Mass was celebrated Feb. 8 at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Malverne, and she was buried at Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury.