At the end of April, as New York City was hitting its peak in confirmed coronavirus cases, PTK alumna Nor Rizek moved there for a volunteer deployment as an EMT. She would spend the next five weeks working 12- to 16-hour shifts for six days straight, with only one day off to rest.
She was there from April 24 through May 28, returning home to Syracuse, New York, on the same day she graduated from Harvard University.
At the height of the pandemic, first responders in New York City were answering some 8,000 emergency calls a day for everything ranging from the most serious COVID-19 cases to the simplest of injuries. Paramedics were getting sick, so New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put out a call for help. Nor was able to go with the second wave of volunteers.
“By the time I got there, we were fortunate that there was so much help from others who were able to come,” she said. “We stayed busy. We were told to assume everyone had COVID. But, you know, you do your job well, take your (personal protective equipment), and you be vigilant of the things you touch, the things the patient touches.”
Nor has been an EMT since 2013. She’d taken a phlebotomy course at her local community college and knew she wanted to do more. A friend who’s a firefighter suggested she join the volunteer fire department, which would pay for her EMT training.
She became passionate about firefighting and still volunteers. It’s not rare to find herself the only woman responding to a fire, though she said she’s starting to see more women get into the field.
“When I started, I had to prove myself so much harder,” she said. “I still work a lot harder to prove to them and to myself that I can keep up with them and that they can put their trust in me.”
Nor is working to become a trauma surgeon. She’s always dreamed of a career in the medical field, and her work as an EMT has only solidified her plans. But, at only 26, she’s already faced a long road getting there.
Her first stint at college, for the phlebotomy course, didn’t go well. Her mother passed away and some years of family hardship followed. She relocated to Hawaii in 2015 and enrolled at Leeward Community College. It was her chance at a fresh start.
“Hawaii would be my make it or break it,” she said. “It was my chance to prove to myself that I could do it.”
Nor joined Phi Theta Kappa at Leeward and ultimately ran for International Vice President for Division 4 in 2016 — the first student from the Pacific Region to do so. She didn’t win, but she did receive the Orlowski Award, selected by all International Officer candidates as the one who best exemplifies PTK’s Hallmarks.
She calls PTK and the 2016 annual convention in particular a lifesaver. For years, she was a victim of abuse and almost didn’t graduate from Leeward. Seeing the thousands of students of different ages and backgrounds — many with their own challenges and trauma — inspired her to keep going. She has attended the 2017, 2018, and 2019 conventions as an alumna, most recently helping with the International Officer candidates.
“PTK definitely proved to me that I’m a leader and that I could be a leader,” she said.
Nor knew she would need to fully immerse herself in her education if she was going to finish. She graduated from Leeward in 2017 and received a PTK transfer scholarship to Harvard University’s Extension School, leaving the abuse far behind.
Starting at Harvard in January 2018 felt “a bit unreal” to Nor. She was on campus full time for that first semester, then she returned home to Syracuse and took most of her classes online, making the nearly five-hour commute back to Cambridge once a week for a few in-person classes and labs. She took a final three-week in-person course in January 2020 to finish her degree.
“(Harvard) made me a better student, a better academic,” she said. “It opened my eyes to so much more.”
Nor continued her full-time job as a paramedic through most of her time at Harvard, working at least 12-hour shifts on a four days on, four days off rotation. When her deployment team in New York found out she was graduating from Harvard, they surprised her with a cake to celebrate.
She’s going to take the next year off to give herself a much-needed break. But, she hopes to take the MCAT and the LSAT by September so she can apply to a six-year dual Medical Doctor/Juris Doctor program. Her top choice is Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
“Knowing the law really makes a difference,” she said. “So much in our lives goes back to government and politics. It’s the biggest cliché that knowledge is power, but it really is.”
Today, Nor is just coming out of her two-week quarantine following her time in New York City. She’ll be returning to her roles as an EMT and a volunteer firefighter in Syracuse and said that, regardless of what her future holds, these two things will stay the same so she can continue serving her community.
The abuse she suffered is now a source of strength for her and has made her more compassionate and understanding in her work. She has witnessed hardship and suffering many of us never will, both personally and on the job, but she won’t ever quit; she loves to help people.
“We see deaths every day, patients that you can’t get back,” she said. “We have to understand that we can’t save everybody, we just have to try. That’s someone’s worst day; we have to try to make it a little better.”
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