A Voice that Heals
Subway accident survivor Renee Katz turns her experience into art
Renee Katz does not just want to be known for the accident that changed her life, and captured the attention of the entire city when she was only 17. A promising flutist at the High School of Music & Art during the crime-ridden 70s, she was pushed in front of an upcoming subway train and her hand was severed at the wrist. Although it was reattached, she had to abandon her acceptance into the New England Conservatory of Music, and instead, endure countless surgeries at Bellevue Hospital.
Through her positive experience with rehabilitation, she decided to give back, and went on to study occupational therapy at NYU. However, her passion for music was still in her heart, so she minored in voice there, and to this day, is still deeply connected to her singing. Besides performing in cabaret clubs here in the city, she also released an album in 2013.
In June, she published her first book of poetry, which she actually began while she was in the hospital year ago. "My main goal is that I always wanted to be known for my talents, not the girl who was thrown under a subway train, but a girl who did something with her life, and who has an intelligent voice," she said.
Although it was highly publicized at the time, explain your accident for people who are not familiar with it.
I went to the High School of Music & Art, which is now the La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Right before my graduation, in June of 1979, I was pushed in front of a subway train. The train went over me and I somehow rolled to the left and got almost out of the way, but my hand did not and it was severed at the wrist. Microsurgery was in its infancy at the time. They found my hand and I went to Bellevue Hospital and in a 16-hour operation, they reattached it. I was a flutist and a pianist and was about to go to the New England Conservatory at Tufts.
Your rehabilitation was at the Rusk Institute, and Dr. Howard Rusk helped with the cost of your treatment.
I can't really say enough about it. It's an amazing place. I got to perform at the funeral of Dr. Howard, which was probably one of the biggest honors of my entire life, because he was the father of rehabilitation. He helped me personally because my parents couldn't afford to pay for everything.
You referenced your nurse, Ethel, who really helped you while you were in the hospital. Are you still in touch with her?
If you look through those stages of grief, one of them is denial and one is where you're feeling sorry for yourself. And I would say I had those two stages. Ethel whipped me into shape. She gave me a pen and paper and told me to start learning how to write with my left hand. She told me to write the ABCs. And while I was doing that, I was getting surgeries for my hand and undergoing skin grafts, and was in a lot of pain. She put me into perspective. I lost touch with her recently and would love to be able to find her again. I hope she gets my book.
The next time you took the subway again was when you started NYU. What did you study there?
I had underdone eight surgeries or more and had had a lot of occupational and physical therapy, so I decided I was going to give back what was given to me. I majored in occupational therapy and minored in voice. I kept on studying music, and was in choirs. I redirected my focus and passion, because I needed music in my life.
I read that as an occupational therapist, you created certain techniques for people with injuries; can you explain those?
I developed some one-handed techniques. I can use my right hand as, what we call, "an assist." I developed some techniques for hand splinting for people who have limited use of one hand, and I use that in my work.
How was music part of your healing process?
Even in the hospital, I found other people who had had accidents. I found a piano and people who were also musicians, and started singing there. My voice teacher also came to the hospital, which was really helpful.
So you can still play the piano.
I can, but it's limited. My main instrument is my voice now, and my writing. I'm a cabaret singer, and was nominated for a MAC award. I've performed at Don't Tell Mama and Eighty Eights in the Village, which closed. But Don't Tell Mama is still there and the owner is a lovely person, cabaret veteran Sidney Meyer.
You named your book, "Never Been Gone," after a Carly Simon song. Why did you choose that title?
Because when you have a bad accident, there are ways to come back and I feel that my soul and passion for music have never been gone. There are always ways to redefine your life, whether it's through music or occupational therapy. There are always passions within you where if you look deep enough and have the support and love around you, you can find them. My parents are inspirations to me.
Your dad is a Holocaust survivor. How did that affect you growing up?
He's a survivor, and has done amazing things with his life. My father never dwelled, he tries not to dwell on the past. He keeps on going like a little Energizer Bunny. But, on the other hand, when you're thrust in the media like I was at 17, that type of personality does help you get through life. It helped me go to college, get through all that surgery, and move on. But sometimes you need to stop and think. And I think young people who are thrust into that media light, do not have that time to grieve. And later on in life, I did get a chance to grieve through divorce, and writing poetry. It's important to do that. And media is great, I got thousands of letters from people all around the city, and I had them plastered all over my hospital walls for inspiration. New York is incredible for that and all that support helped me moved forward.
How did you meet your new husband?
I met him online, but we talked for a long time before we actually met. He's a wonderful person. I'm lucky.
When did you decide to publish your writing?
Well, as you can see, much later in life. I never tried to capitalize on my accident, and I still haven't. This is a labor of love. It's a dedication to my parents, my son, people who are known and loved, and other survivors. The book is very honest and open, and it took a lot of courage to write a lot of that. One of the poems is about that, it's called "Vulnerability."
To learn more about Renee, visit www.reneekatzmusic.com
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