Ten years ago, I was in my residency training at Mt. Sinai Hospital here in New York City. September 11, 2001 started as a routine as any day could. I remember what a gorgeous sunny blue-sky day it was — a perfect early fall day. Little did I know (or any of us for that matter) how our world view would change forever on that day. A few years later, I started writing my thoughts on these events, and the human tragedies that followed.
Here is an excerpt:
“The last decade has seen a multitude of disasters, both man-made and natural — all of which have been no less tragic. 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Wilma, the Earthquake in Pakistan, the Tsunami in South East Asia, the subway bombings in London, and a potential Bird Flu Pandemic – these are all disasters of the recent past or the soon to be future. It seems that 9/11/01 marked the ushering in of this new age. Before 9/11, we may have been relatively innocent. But after 9/11, all of us were touched in some way or another. Perhaps that is why I was inspired to write about this experience. 9/11/01 made me more deeply aware of worldwide human suffering than any event that preceded it.
By September 11, 2001, even though I had not been born in New York City, I felt like a New Yorker. I had moved here in 1999 to begin my medical residency at Mt. Sinai Hospital. Life could not be better than to live in one of the greatest cities in the world. That day all would change. That fateful morning as I slipped out of Medicine Grand Rounds early, I was stopped at the elevator bank by an attending I knew. He asked me if I had heard anything about a plane hitting one of the towers of the World Trade Center. He believed it to be a small plane. In the hectic world of the hospital, I had not had a chance yet to catch a glimpse of the morning news by chance in one of the patient rooms. We parted with little ado. We had no foresight of how the world would change in the next couple of hours.
As I rode up the elevator to the hospital wing known as 9 West, I reflected on my last time at the “Top of the World Bar” in the South Tower. I had been there for one of the best Salsa Bands in the city, no less. The true nature of this tragic event had not made itself known as of yet. I figured I’d learn more about what happened later and resumed my normal morning routine; however, there would be nothing routine about the rest of that morning. In fact, life would cease to feel routine as it once did. My life, and ours, was changed forever by the events seen unfolding on the television that fateful Tuesday morning. In front of our eyes, we saw these great marvels of human engineering ablaze in flames. In front of our eyes, we saw people jumping in desperation to their unspeakable deaths. In front of our eyes – the world changed as we saw these great towers collapse.
When I saw the first tower collapse, I could not believe my eyes. For a second, I hesitated, blinking several times in disbelief, wanting to trick myself into believing it was some sort of optical illusion. I stopped breathing. Silence, then outbursts of disbelief filled the nurse’s station. In a single instant in time, the pulse of this city had been changed, and so of the rest of the country. The hospital was soon placed under special emergency alert — Code E — only to be used under the most extreme of emergencies. We were number seven in the hospital line-up that never happened. We were expecting an influx of wounded survivors; instead, the emergency room remained half-empty waiting in expectation while CNN was reporting in the background.
There would not be many survivors. Beyond words, beyond understanding a great tragedy landed on our doorstep. My grandparents lived through Pearl Harbor, but this was my first experience with human tragedy at a grand scale.
Human tragedy has affected each of us. Most of these tragedies are personal, but as the last ten years have shown us, there are tragedies that encompass orders of magnitude beyond our simple comprehension. Whether it was a loved one that perished within the collapsing towers, in the crashing plane, in the Tsunami, or a grandmother that died helpless at a nursing home during Hurricane Katrina, and the others that could not survive the aftermath because of days without timely food, water or proper medical care, human tragedy was here. It was no longer something far away that you read about. Human tragedy now had hit home for each of us in some way, shape or form.
Those left behind must somehow process what has happened; they must process these terrible tragedies and then somehow find a way to live on. Having been so close to the events of 9/11, and thereafter having worked in a program that assessed those who participated in the relief effort at Ground Zero, I found myself asking these questions:
How do we cope with these catastrophes? How as a human race do we continue living on without accepting a unified, shared consciousness in the pain of these calamities? Seeing patients coming in even two years after the event still unable to see beyond a dark cloud over their heads, I wondered, ‘How do we move on with our lives if the pain of these events hits us every day?’
Perhaps this was a call to stop focusing on war and destruction and finally come to our own as the caretakers of this planet and each other. Perhaps it was time to change our focus and really learn how to take care of ourselves. How could we not feel a call to end this suffering? Is there a solution to what we feel inside?”
From the psychological to the physical, health effects have definitely been observed in those that were exposed to the WTC debris. This massive destruction released known carcinogens into the environment, not only affecting the “health” of our environment, but also the health of those that lived nearby or worked in the recovery effort.
We need to realize how everything is connected. The environment and our health are intertwined. This is what I mean by the concept of Sustainable Health. We need to stop seeing ourselves as separate from, and more like extensions of our environment as it is of us. A new study has shown a possible link between WTC exposures and an increased incidence of cancer. In my post on Ecomii’s Food and Health blog, The Health Consequences of 9/11, I explore what we know so far about health consequences for those that worked in the recovery effort at Ground Zero.
I did not lose a loved one in the twin towers, but I felt a great sense of loss. I am grateful for all those that so bravely acted during this great tragedy.
Please share any thoughts you have in the comments section. Thank you for reading.
To be continued….