Shirley Okrent, Long Island’s first hospital-based midwife, was remembered by her family and friends for her independent spirit and commitment to helping others.
She died April 3 of congestive heart failure in her Upper East Side apartment at age 91.
Okrent was born Shirley Riaff, the youngest of six children, on May 14, 1924, in Sioux City, Iowa, to Russian Jewish immigrants. The family moved to Brooklyn when Okrent was 2.
After graduating from Washington Irving High School in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan, Okrent briefly enrolled in secretarial school. Despite her early interest in medicine, her father discouraged her from pursuing a career in nursing.
“My mother was a very strong-willed woman,” said her youngest son Russell Okrent, 58. “If you told her ‘no’ you’d better be able to back it up.”
Okrent wasn’t dissuaded, and in 1943, she joined the Cadet Nurse Corps and graduated from the Kings County Hospital School of Nursing four years later.
Soon after, she married Meyer Okrent, a civil engineer. They had three children and were married for 48 years, until Meyer’s death in 1996.
“She was a devoted and loving mother,” said Okrent’s oldest son Daniel Okrent, of Hempstead. “She never forgot her responsibility to her children or her husband. Not for one day, not for one hour.”
Okrent then went back to school to become a certified nurse-midwife, where she developed a passion for family planning.
“As the youngest of six children in a poor working-class family, she knew firsthand the importance of [family planning],” Russell said. “And she wasn’t afraid to break the rules when she felt it was needed.”
He remembers his mother recounting at the dinner table how she was “caught” advising patients to visit the family planning clinic, while finishing her training at Kings County Hospital. But instead of being reprimanded, he said, Okrent was allowed to learn more about contraception and family planning practices. She went on to run the clinic.
Okrent became the first hospital-based nurse-midwife on Long Island when she was hired by Good Samaritan Hospital’s prenatal clinic in Wyandanch in 1977 — the year she received a bachelor’s degree in marine biology from Empire State College.
“The woman was a locomotive. She was a mover and shaker,” said Lee Horton, a pupil of Okrent’s, who now has her own midwifery practice and was an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. “When she started at Good Samaritan, she was really paving the way for those that came after her.”
Okrent “formally retired” in 1989, Horton said, but “didn’t really stop working in the profession that she loved” for another 10 years.
“She inspired me and many others,” Horton said. “She just kept right on cranking.”
Okrent received several awards commemorating her groundbreaking career, including the Theresa Dondero award and Dorothea M. Lang Pioneer honor from the American College of Nurse-Midwives. In 2003, she was also honored as a pioneering midwife by the Long Island Midwives.
In addition to her sons, Okrent is survived by daughter Diane Okrent, of Manhattan; brother, Maurice Riaff of Clearwater, Florida; and three grandchildren.
A service was held April 5 at Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan.