Published in the July 2013 issue of The Storyteller, Winner – People’s Choice Award
It had been almost five years since 9/11 and I still felt fine. Friends, and if they weren’t friends before they’ve become friends since, that I was with in those days have had respiratory ailments, panic attacks and other physical and mental problems, but not me. Since I went through the same physical and mental stress while doing structural assessment for the Department of Buildings they did, they all strongly suggested I sign up for the Mount Sinai World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program to get expert opinions. I was hard to convince. I didn’t want to coddle myself. But I was having some sinus problems and it couldn’t hurt to have that looked into.
I had to go through a telephone interview to see if I was eligible for the program. A very polite interviewer asked me about ten minutes of questions. Where was I when the planes hit? How many hours and how many days did I spend on the site? With a few other questions along those lines it became clear that I was eligible. At the end of the interview she had one last question. While the fire was burning before the collapse, did I see anyone jumping and did I see any body parts after the collapse? With all of these questions, some of them personal, I felt like I had a relationship with the interviewer so I tried to give her as honest an answer as I could.
“Yes and no,” I said.
She politely asked, “Can you be a little more specific?”
I said, “Well, everyone I was with saw people jumping and body parts. I must have seen the same things but I don’t remember anything about it.”
The interviewer said, “OK, let’s let that one go and set up an appointment for you.”
We picked a time for a day the following week and she said I’d have to set aside four hours. It sounded like it would be very thorough and it was. They’d been doing this for a few years by then and it was well organized. We patients were kept moving from room to room and test to test with very little waiting. It was a thorough general physical with a strong emphasis on respiratory issues. They took the usual blood samples, then EKG’s, Cat Scans, lung capacity measurements and some other typical tests. A nurse practitioner interviewed me about the conditions I worked under:
“Did you always wash your hands before you ate?”
“Did you always wear a Tyvek suit?”
“Did you always wear a respirator?”
“Yes, except when I took it off to smoke.”
She smiled, rolled her eyes and said, “How many times do you think I heard that one since I’ve been here?”
Later in the afternoon I met with a doctor to go over the test results. My lung capacity was fine and I had no lower respiratory problems. That was a relief. My sinuses weren’t all they should be but I expected that. She recommended surgery or treatment with steroid sprays that could be done either at Mount Sinai or handled by my own doctor. I thanked her and promised I would look into it. I was getting anxious to leave and I guess it showed.
She told me, “Just one more stop. You’ll have a brief interview with a counselor and then you’re on your way.”
From there I went to Melissa’s office. She was a very serious and intense young psychologist who was perhaps younger than my daughter. This made me a bit uncomfortable at first since I would be talking to her about my psychological state. After the first few minutes her professionalism overcame my discomfort. She asked me what were by now the usual questions; why I was at the site, in what capacity, how many hours per day and so on.
She then went on to ask some new questions about my current condition. Was I having trouble sleeping, feeling anxious, depressed or suicidal?
“No,” I answered to all, “at least not more than most people.”
She then asked if I saw anyone jump while the buildings were burning.
I knew where this was going so I said, “There’s really no simple answer to that. I was looking up at the north tower from just below with others who saw people jumping but I don’t remember seeing anything. And after the collapse everyone I was working with saw body parts and again I didn’t think I did but I suppose I must have.”
Melissa looked concerned as I was saying this so I added, “It didn’t seem like such a bad thing. My friends have awful memories that I was able to avoid.”
She said, “Most times it’s not good to suppress memories, no matter how awful.”
She seemed to place a great deal more importance on this than I did. I wanted to put her at ease so I explained a bit more about my job.
“I do structural emergency response and although I’m not a first responder like Police, Fire or EMT, I sometimes see fatalities, blood and body parts. I was given some advice when I started doing this, ‘Look only as much as you need to in order to do your job but try not to let it burn into your memory.’ And that’s what I managed to do.”
Melissa said, “Maybe that advice worked too well for you at the World Trade Center. How would you like to come to see me few more times so we can talk about some of these things?”
I wasn’t happy about this. I was already seeing a physical therapist weekly since I injured my shoulder in a fall on a construction site. I didn’t want to take more time out of my schedule to deal with something else that until now wasn’t an issue. But Melissa expressed real concern and that made me concerned so I agreed. We set an appointment time at nine AM on Thursdays, a convenient time for me because I could see her on my way to work. The first sessions were easy. She asked lots of questions about my background. I never realized how much fun it could be talking about nothing but me for a whole hour to someone who was really interested. But then she began to probe more deeply and it wasn’t fun anymore. She asked me to tell her what I felt when I was running from the collapse.
I said, “I guess I was angry and embarrassed. Embarrassed to be running from something that made me so angry.”
Melissa was surprised at my response and said, “Do you think maybe you used that anger to suppress your fear?”
I said, “Maybe that’s how I did it. It was better to be angry than afraid.”
It also came up that I had no memory of the sound of the collapse. Most people who were there remember it as one of the loudest roars they ever heard but to me it was like watching silent news footage. She was much more troubled by this than I was and I had hardly given it any thought until I mentioned it to her.
We spoke about what I did, what I saw and what I felt. After ten weeks of this I explained to her that as much as I liked talking with her and although I felt she had helped me, it was enough and we had to stop. She was young and sincerely trying to give me help I didn’t think I needed. I saw she was disappointed and I was very sorry about that.
I told her as gently as I could, “If blocking a few bad things was what it took to get me through those months and do my job, then that’s what I had to do.”
- TECHNICAL WRITING SAMPLES: These pieces were researched and written during the Giuliani administration. Interesting changes have taken place since then.