On a day as clear and crisp as it was just before the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago, patients from Northwell Health’s World Trade Center (WTC) Health Program and the medical experts who treat them gathered today in the shadow of One World Trade Center.
The men and women shared memories from that terrifying day and from the work they performed at Ground Zero for several weeks after – but also discussed their hope for the future as they continue to fight the long-term health effects that resulted from the WTC collapse.
An actress, a priest, a firefighter’s widow, a steel welder, an officer worker: These five people met for the first time to share their stories of survival from September 11, 2001. Each had a very personal reason for working “The Pile” at Ground Zero during the ensuing weeks. Today, most are living with catastrophic illness as a result of the toxic debris.
Jacqueline Moline, MD, vice president of Population Health and director of Northwell’s WTC Health Program, has been a leading researcher on the medical evaluation and treatment of WTC responders. She began treating patients whose health was affected by their work at Ground Zero in October 2001 and has spoken repeatedly before Congress about the need for ongoing medical treatment for these patients. Dr. Moline’s efforts have been instrumental in securing federally-funded medical programs for survivors. During today’s event, she was able to reveal findings based on new data gleaned from patients’ case studies.
“I have been honored to be a part of the World Trade Center health programs for nearly 20 years,” said Dr. Moline. “We know that these programs make a difference by providing state-of-the-art medical treatment with no out-of-pocket expenses. These programs save lives.”
The long-term health of first responders and those who lived and worked in lower Manhattan in the weeks and months after 9/11 requires regular monitoring, even two decades later, Dr. Moline said. As a result, mortality rates for the more than 110,000 individuals receiving care through WTC health programs were 28 percent lower for cancer and 36 percent lower for all causes of death compared with a similar New York state population, Dr. Moline’s research has found.
Some of those WTC survivors testified to their personal health battles while bearing witness to the day during an emotional press conference today at Lenox Health Greenwich Village. What follows are the memories and hopes of Northwell patients who survived 9/11:
Fred Eichler, 73, of Manhattan, credits a hip replacement surgery performed at Northwell in 2000 for his ability to walk down 83 fights of steps of the XX Tower and rescuing the man who became his best friend. “It took us 45 minutes to make it down to the lobby. I remember telling Jonathan, who was not injured but in shock, that we would survive. As far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t have been able to save myself – much less Jonathan – if it weren’t for the hip replacement surgery I had one year earlier. I just hope no one ever forgets what happened on 9/11.
Denise Lynch, of New Hyde Park, is the widow of Michael F. Lynch, of FDNY Ladder No. 4. She believes that the cancer she was diagnosed with some years ago is a direct result of her work on “The Pile.” “My children were very young when this happened. It’s important that they understand the heroic work performed by their father and all the other first responders.”
Scott Bartells, 52, of Rockaway Beach, was a steel welder who volunteered at “The Pile” for several weeks because of his knowledge of working with steel. He is now living with a form of blood cancer while also being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. “I will never forget the sounds and the smells that came off ‘The Pile.’ I’m grateful to the WTC program and my service dog, Adolf, for helping to get me through. We can never forget what happened there.”
Christina Huie, 52, of Brooklyn, was an actress in 2001. When she heard news about the attack on the radio, she grabbed a cab and rushed downtown to help. A volunteer who spent just two weeks on clean-up crews, Ms. Huie has been treated since 2014 for a very rare form of blood cancer. “I’m getting through this and surviving COVID earlier this year. I believe we all have to keep fighting – just never give up.”
Father Paul Wierichs, 77, of Jamaica Estates, was an FBI chaplain on 9/11. “Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see at Ground Zero. The most common question I’ve been asked since that day was ‘Where was God?’ My answer is that God was with us that day. He gave us all the strength we needed to go the extra mile. His presence is in the unity of humankind at that time and the outreach of love and compassion we saw.”
Twenty years later, the human toll from diseases born out of the toxic aftermath are still being felt. Founded in 2011, Northwell’s WTC Health Program currently has 6,000 patients enrolled, which translates into approximately 2,500 visits each year. To learn more about the program, please visit:https://www.northwell.edu/occupational-medicine-epidemiology-prevention/northwell-health-queens-world-trade-center-health-program.