Starr Lentz walks through the intensive care unit of LIJ Forest Hills like she owns it. And in many respects, the ICU nurse does.
“She can lead and take control of a hairy situation, which is important because things are very fluid in the ICU,” said Rosemarie Robinson, RN, nurse manager of the hospital’s 18-bed critical care unit.
“Being an ICU nurse is not for everyone.”
Direct, forward and admittedly loud, Lentz grew up in and out of foster care and a group home. One of four children born to a crack cocaine-using mom, she recalls having to hide her mother’s food stamps when she was 9 years old, so she and her older sister could do the grocery shopping and make sure there was food in the house.
A run-in with gangbangers over wearing a rival gang’s colors left Lentz with a four-inch knife scar on her left forearm.
At age 14, she wound up in a group home in Bedford Stuyvesant that was run by the Catholic Guardian Services.
“Starr gave me a run for my money,” said Mary Jackson, supervisor of the home where Starr lived for two years.
There were the numerous late night escapes through the second-floor window of the three-story brownstone at the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and Lexington Avenue.
And there were countless times when Jackson had to pull her out of the beauty parlor across the street when she was supposed to be in school.
“She was horrible, she had more days absent than she had present in school,” recalled Jackson. “But she was smart. She would go to school on the day of a test and ace it. I told her, ‘Starr, if you could do this without anybody teaching you, what could you do if somebody really taught you?’”
After being adopted by a family on Staten Island, Lentz heeded Jackson’s advice and applied herself. Although there were a few bumps along the way, she went on to become class valedictorian at Concord High School in Staten Island.
When she was 17 years old, Lentz suffered a ruptured appendix, leading to peritonitis and small bowel obstruction. She spent 10 days in the ICU, had three surgeries and a colostomy bag for three months. The experience would help shape her career in nursing.
While high school was a breeze for Lentz, college was a disaster. Lacking discipline and good study habits, she flunked out.
At age 22, she found herself homeless, pregnant and sitting on a park bench in Central Park. That was the turning point in her life.
“I didn’t want my daughter to have to experience anything that I had to experience,” said Lentz. “I didn’t want her to know what it’s like to be hungry, to not have a roof over her head or what it’s like not to be wanted.”
She lived in a homeless shelter throughout her pregnancy and for several months afterwards, eventually getting a Section 8 apartment, job and going back to school. At the urging of her brother, Lentz moved upstate and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Utica College.
A nurse for seven years, the last three at LIJ Forest Hills, her nurse manager sees her as the ideal advocate for her patients.
“When you actually experience the other side of being in a hospital, you have a lot more empathy for the people that are lying in the bed,” Lentz said of her recollections as a teenage patient.
Now a happily married mother of two, Lentz’s metamorphosis—or, as she refers to it, “memories of a ghetto superstar”—is the subject of a documentary by the Catholic Guardian Services. The not-for-profit agency hopes that it will serve as a message of hope to others facing similar life struggles.
“You don’t have to be a victim of your circumstance. You don’t have to allow what your parents did or didn’t do to be your end state,” said Lentz. “If you work and you’re willing to put in the sacrifice, you can make yourself a better you.”