By Kim Maialetti
The window outside Larry Garcia’s office at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center is decorated with signs created by local schoolchildren during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s spring peak.
“Hospital janitors are heroes,” proclaims one with a drawing of a lion.
“Thank you doctors, nurses, police, janitors, scientists,” reads another showing a finger shooting flames at several coronaviruses colored in red crayon.
Garcia is Director of Environmental Services at Penn Medicine Princeton Health, where he leads a team of more than 60 full-time workers responsible for keeping every inch of the 636,000-square-foot hospital clean.
As essential employees, he and his staff were on the front lines when COVID-19 struck.
“We’ve always had a 10-step cleaning process in place for all patient rooms,” Garcia said. “We followed strict protocols before COVID, and though the anxiety levels may have been higher at the start of the pandemic, we knew how to do our jobs safely and effectively.
“We are also fortunate that senior leadership as well as the clinical team and nurses are supportive of our team,” added Garcia. “Of all the hospitals I’ve ever worked in, this one has been one of the most supportive.”
Garcia, a former semi-pro baseball pitcher and talented illustrator, has worked in hospitals and health care facilities for over three decades. He began working with Princeton Health in 2011 and was quickly put in charge of cleaning up after the construction of the new Princeton Medical Center facility in Plainsboro.
It was up to Garcia and his team to ensure the building gleamed when it opened its doors to its very first patients the following year, and it has been their job to keep it gleaming every day since.
“I am driven by details,” Garcia said. “My motivation is to be the number one hospital in the nation for patient satisfaction and best practices.”
Garcia walks the entire hospital three times a day, logging close to 17,000 steps daily as he keeps a keen eye out for the odd dust ball here or the tiniest speck of dirt there, looking for any variation in the environment.
During his rounds, he pays close attention to the hospital lobby, straightening the mats that lead in from the doorways and adjusting the trash cans so they stand in line like soldiers in a row.
“The lobby is a crucial area,” Garcia said. “It really sets the tone for the cleanliness of the hospital.”
In addition to keeping the lobby and patient rooms clean, the Environmental Services team disinfects high-contact surfaces, including doorknobs and elevator buttons, several times a day.
As he makes his way through the hospital, Garcia greets his staff members by name, checking in to see how their shift is going, asking if they need anything.
“He’s one of the best bosses,” said Carol Wright, an environmental services worker at Princeton Medical Center for 14 years. “He treats people with respect, like we are one family.”
Garcia holds (socially distant) huddles with his staff every morning and makes a point to publicly recognize team members for a job well done, often treating individuals to coffee or lunch as sign of his appreciation.
He encourages his team to share suggestions when they see opportunities for improvement and looks for every chance there is to promote good work.
A natural leader and motivator, raised with a strong sense of responsibility, he likes to tell his employees:
“What you do for a living does not define who you are, but how you do it, does.”
Born in Havana, Cuba, Garcia moved to New York at age 4 and grew up in the Bronx, where he lived with his father, mother and two older brothers.
As a child, he had two loves — art and baseball — and he credits his mother for encouraging him to practice both.
Garcia’s talent for drawing secured him a spot at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. There, he studied cartoon illustration and joined the school’s baseball team as a pitcher.
“Art became a refuge for me. It kept me out of trouble and helped me create a world of my own,” Garcia said. “But I also had a passion for baseball and really wanted to become a professional baseball player.”
The summer after high school, Garcia signed on to play ball with the Dominican Summer League, a Minor League Baseball affiliate considered a stepping-stone to the big leagues.
“It was one of the vehicles to try to get to the Major League,” said Garcia, whose father also played semi-pro baseball. “I was an 18-year-old kid. I was scared and excited at the same time.”
A shoulder injury forced Garcia to return home early, but he wasn’t ready to hang up his cleats just yet, and after recovering, he landed a walk-on try out as a pitcher for his favorite team of all time — the New York Yankees.
He remembers sitting in the stadium dugout afterward as other players’ names were called for the roster.
“Once I didn’t hear my name, I felt like the loneliest person on the planet,” Garcia said. “But, it was an amazing experience throwing off of that mound.”
At the same time, Garcia was enrolled as a liberal arts student at Lehman College City University of New York.
However, as he says, he did not like the term “starving artist” and decided to accept a job as an environmental services manager at Mount Sinai Hospital.
That was 30 years ago.
Over the course of his career, Garcia has worked in various long-term and acute care facilities, including Jersey City Medical Center, which is where he was during the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We were right across the Hudson from the World Trade Center and watched the whole thing unfold,” Garcia said. “At the time, my wife was an accountant for Merrill Lynch, and her office was near there. The first thought I had was that I was going to have to raise my two children myself.”
His wife was fortunately unharmed, and his children are now grown, but he remembers the day like it was yesterday.
Though Garcia long retired from baseball, he did have the honor of throwing out the first pitch at a Trenton Thunder game in July 2019 as part of a yearlong series of events in celebration of Princeton Medical Center’s 100-year anniversary.
He remains a diehard Yankees fan and dreams about one day throwing out the first pitch at a Yankees game. Garcia has also maintained his passion for art. In 2017, he published a children’s chapter book titled “The Haunted Pumpkin Patch,” which he wrote and illustrated.
Reflecting on his career in environmental services, Garcia talked about what it means to be an essential employee.
“Environmental service workers are essential personnel,” Garcia said. “We have a responsibility. We may not fix broken bones and we may not suture open wounds, but we provide a clean environment so people can heal.”