Long illness takes life of CB 8’s Katz

By Tien-Shun Lee

Katz, who lived in Jamaica Estates, was a community leader and a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at PS 131 for 25 years before she retired in 1991. Three years later she developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare neurological disease that causes impermanent paralysis, after taking a flu shot.

She never recovered fully and died Jan. 5 in Parker Jewish Institute for Health Care & Rehabilitation after struggling for years to keep up with CB 8 meetings, the Hadassah Jewish women's group's activities and her active social life while undergoing hemodialysis treatment to compensate for her failing kidneys.

“My mother was an absolutely incredible person. She said to me, if somebody had to get (Guillain-Barre Syndrome), thank God it was her and not one of the kids,” said Katz's daughter, Gerrie Katz-Wolf, 51, Friday.

“The first time she was in the hospital after she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre, she continued to conduct business for the community board, for the Democratic Club, recalling names and phone numbers from memory with tubes running in and out of her.”

A memorial for Katz was delivered last week at a CB 8 meeting by Marc Haken, one of Katz's close friends who now works for Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis).

“She was devoted and loyal to her principles, the right way things should be done,” Haken said. “Sammy (Katz's father) instilled in her the idea that a female can do everything a man can do except stand at a urinal. He really inculcated Arlene with some very strong principles – loyalty, devotion, passion and compassion.”

Katz's father, Sammy Fuchs, owned a well-known nightclub, Sammy's Bowery Follies, on Bowery Street in Manhattan and was known as the “mayor of Bowery,” Haken said. When Katz was born in 1935, the first person to visit her mother in the hospital was former New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker, Haken said.

At 8 years old, Katz was designated a World War II air raid warden. She would knock on doors to remind people to pull down their shades or close their curtains during designated city “blackouts” so that German soldiers could not see the city and bomb it.

After World War II, Katz moved to Jamaica Estates with her family. She graduated from Jamaica High School at the age of 16 and married her husband, Stanley Katz, who is a judge in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens. She went on to study at Hofstra University on Long Island and became a teacher at PS 131 in 1975.

During her tenure at PS 131, Katz was the United Federation of Teachers union chairwoman at her school. She became a member of the parent-teacher association at her three children's schools, a member of the youth committee for CB 8, a leader of the Jewish charitable organization Hadassah, president of the Independence Democratic Club and a member of the Queens Hospital Board.

In 1994, three years after she retired, Katz was invited back to her school to teach kindergarten and she decided to take a flu shot for the first time in her life before going to work with young children.

Katz became very ill and weak after taking the flu shot. She went to numerous doctors, but her condition was not diagnosed until she was taken to Long Island Jewish Hospital weeks later. She spent several months at LIJ and the Parker rehabilitation center where she suffered gradual, ascending paralysis from legs to head, which is typical of Guillain-Barre patients.

Though flu shots have been anecdotally linked to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that only the 1976 swine flu vaccine was statistically linked to the disease. More than 99 percent of patients with Guillain-Barre did not recently receive a vaccination and in those cases where they did receive a shot, there is no proof that the vaccine caused the onset of the disease, according to the CDC.

Though Katz recovered from Guillain-Barre so that she was able to get around independently, she suffered residual complications from the disease and was hospitalized and sent back to Parker dozens of times following her initial recovery.

During the last three years, Katz was forced to undergo hemodialysis for four hours a day, three days a week, but that did not stop her and her husband from going on cruises on boats equipped with dialysis machines.

“It's the most debilitating thing in the world, and, my God, what a fighter,” said Barbara Weiner, a former teacher for PS 95 in Jamaica who had looked forward to a wonderful retirement with her closest friend when the two retired together at the age of 55. “All I can say is that she died too young.”

A funeral for Katz was held Jan. 7 at the Schwartz Brothers Memorial Chapel in Forest Hills.

Katz is survived by her daughter, Gerrie; son Charles Katz, 44; grandson, Marc Franco Katz, 6; son-in-law, Michael Wolf; and daughter-in-law, Reyna Franco Katz. Her son Mitchell Katz and daughter-in-law Suzi Katz died in a plane crash eight years ago.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.