1. Shalo, Sybil

Article Content

For as long as she can remember, Irma Rochlin has had a passion for public service. Perhaps it's a legacy of her parents, who were active in religious community organizations. Perhaps it's a result of a constricting marriage, which she felt "denied everything that was me." But perhaps the reason doesn't matter. After working as a nurse, a homemaker, and a legislator and activist, Rochlin, at 84, sees no reason to slow down. "I live in a high rise on the ocean and can have a luxurious life," she says. "I live in a community where most people sit back and play cards, but that's just not for me."


She graduated from Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in June 1945 and served as an army nurse until February 1946, when she was released to care for her ill father. Rochlin then worked as an operating room (OR) supervisor at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. "I loved being in the OR," she says. "Things were very different back then. We used to hang bloody gauzes on drying lines in the OR to count every single one and make sure none were left in the patient. We even had to sharpen needles."


In 1947 Rochlin married, and she and her husband moved to North Carolina, where she took a long hiatus from nursing to help her husband build his business and care for their two young daughters. The family moved to California, where twin daughters were born in 1958. During that time, Rochlin says, her husband forbade her to work. Still, she was active in the community and volunteered at her daughters' school, becoming president of its Parent Teacher Association. For 23 years, she acquiesced to her husband's wishes because she had, like many women of her generation, "the feeling that you were supposed to get married, have children, and support your husband.


"And I tried to fit into that," she says. "It was a confining experience, and I failed to grow." They divorced in 1970, and Rochlin eventually moved to southern Florida and dove into local politics, serving on city planning and zoning boards, becoming the first chairperson of the county Commission on the Status of Women, the president and organizer of the Democratic Women's Club, and a member of the county Democratic Executive Committee. She joined nearly a dozen Jewish organizations and became an officer of the Gray Panthers.

Figure. Irma Rochlin... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Irma Rochlin in 1987, presenting a bill to the Florida House of Representatives.

It came as no surprise to her in 1984 that she was asked by the county Democratic Party to run for the Florida state legislature. She beat three opponents and quickly got to work on several health care initiatives, including funding for treatment of AIDS and multiple sclerosis, school-based clinics, and women's centers. She supported domestic violence laws and what she calls "the whole feminist agenda." And in an effort that would later expand the state's use of advanced practice RNs, Rochlin spearheaded passage of a law allowing public health nurses to prescribe and dispense medication without the need for a physician visit. She estimates that the state saved $1,000,000 in the first year after the law changed.


During her three-term, five-year tenure, Rochlin helped create Florida's Developmental Disabilities Council, which extended insurance rights for developmentally disabled people over age 18 and empowered the state to quickly remove people from state facilities without undertaking protracted legal battles. She was instrumental in legislating guidelines for licensing freestanding birth centers, and also "fought back doctors who wanted to allow the use of dangerous stimulants that had no place outside of a hospital."


Rochlin is particularly proud of her leadership in passing the first law in the country outlawing physician prescribing of anabolic steroids for high school bodybuilders and revoking the medical license of anyone convicted of doing so. But she considers her greatest achievement as a legislator to have been her work to privatize prison hospitals and improve inmates' health. Today, she's as busy as ever, involved with causes related to Israel and the welfare of Jews worldwide. She recently traveled to the Ukraine with a humanitarian group aiming to assist Jewish women who have little opportunity for education or employment.


Of her varied career Rochlin says, "I was feeling guilty for not staying active in nursing, but my concern for people led me into politics." That's where, she says, she felt she could make the greatest difference.


Sybil Shalo