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Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: A Call to Action in 2021

Hi, it’s Dr. Rob here with some thoughts for you looking back about 20 years, looking back as to why I wrote this book really is an essay to get some things off my chest and out of my mind, out of my heart, as a means of encouragement and storytelling about what happened in my little piece of the 911 experience. The issue though becomes, What have I learned looking back now? What has society learned? It was a great time, actually. Everyone was saying,  “Thank you first responders”. People were putting up signs in New York.  Anywhere where you went there were American flags. And signs…thank you. Thank you. Thank you! People were standing there with signs, just outside the perimeter of Ground Zero.  America came together. We loved our first responders. America’s finest and America’s bravest is what they call the NYPD and NYFD.   Construction workers from around the world. And second responders like us from Lancaster, Pennsylvania also showed up.

It felt good. It felt proud. It felt like a Patriot. We all were patriotic. We had an enemy and we suddenly forgot whether we were Democrat or Republican, black or white, or rich or poor. People were trying to hurt us and her children.  They were trying to hurt our institutions; trying to hurt our very governments. We pulled together.

I’m very disappointed to say that right now, 20 years later, when similar threats occur, we are pulling apart. You know, at the time it was ordinary people in extraordinary times. That’s what it was all about. Ordinary people like me, like teenagers, showed up at various venues to make food, to do health records, to work on databases, to comfort families, to go to funerals. Ordinary people stepped up at extraordinary times. They did it with 911 later in my life. They did it with Hurricane Katrina. I wrote a little book about our experiences there called Lessons Learned: Successes Achieved because Dr. Evalgeline Franklin said, don’t do another lessons learned story that criticizes what good came out of it. And I’d like to think that now it’s 20 years later, we can start, look at what good can we pull out of our lessons from 911. How can we remind ourselves what we can do?  And how can we act?

Now, let’s just start out with maybe about 10 things I’d like to share. Clearly to me, a lesson I learned and a lesson that still exists is that our first responders are out of shape. Many of them are.  They are also ill-equipped, underfunded, and under-resourced and hard to find. Many of our communities rely on volunteers that can’t afford to take the time off or their employers don’t see the value. Many of them are working in situations where they’re bartering for band-aids versus sheets for their ambulances. They’re having boot drives to raise money.

Some of them have paramilitary, militaristic equipment. Part of the lessons learned was our local communities can deal with things in a lot of riot related gear, almost SWAT gear. In fact, SWAT gear and military gear found its way to communities, but the EMT, the paramedics, the respiratory therapists they’re ignored or underfunded. Those first responders who are out of shape. And if they have to carry me out of a building or do CPR on me for more than five minutes, I really worry that they’ll be able to do it.  I hope they just won’t tire out or die because they’re putting themselves at risk in that fire and yet don’t have the strength to get out or don’t have the lung capacity after say a COVID or after tobacco abuse during their life. Our citizens have become complacent and are also out of shape.

 Life is pretty good for many of us, for most of us, in fact, and when we call 911, someone comes, police, fire, ambulance. We get help. Kids go to public schools. The schools are there. For many of us that’s true. For others, there’s a whole problem with social determinants of health that have created barriers for people to have simple things like basic transportation and evacuation route out of down.  If they don’t have a car, there may be no means to get away from a disaster.  But the citizens have also gotten complacent and gotten out of shape. They have spiritually fallen off. They have from a patriotism standpoint, they call it patriotism, but it’s, it’s certainly not all for one as a society.  They have gotten complacent that way too. And we’ve gotten out of shape physically and mentally. We are not resilient and we’re not keeping in good shape.

Physically, the obesity epidemic has emerged since 911.  People blame it on high fructose corn syrup and prepared foods. They blame it on are less activity, more screen time, all sorts of factors.  In some neighborhoods, there’s no access to fresh fruits or vegetables In  others, it’s cheaper, really to buy a poptart than an apple to buy a, a dollar taco with meat product and very high fat than it is to buy an apple for twice the cost, if its even available.   Fast foods are easily available.  Healthy fast food is available, but more expensive and more healthier food is not as available as it could be. Our knowledge of how to choose those foods and how to cook them or prepare them effectively has fallen off. Basically, our citizens have become health illiterate with regards to taking care of themselves. They have trusted, many good sources, say on the internet or their local doctors, but many have begun to trust sources that are not credible, that are clearly biased and financially or agenda driven.

You know, we’ve been lucky.  The last 20 years we’ve had a war that’s been questionable at best with the outcomes mow this month that I’m dictating this or presenting this, its a disaster with how it’s ended.  It has reduced, or perhaps it has reduced our international terrorism threats, but it has not reduced our domestic terrorism threats.  It has not reduced our class, academia, race division, and some to some extent, high levels of prejudice and discrimination and literal warfare. We have had our own citizens blow up federal buildings. We have had our own citizens, attack our Capitol. We’ve had our own citizens have random shootings in schools, in factories and public events at concerts. So we have domestic terrorism emerging as a major risk. Our citizens, if you said, what would you do if you’re at an event and 10, 20 people around you got shot, you’ll see people cradling other people. I saw it in the Las Vegas shootings.  People were cradling the other people, as they were saying, “don’t leave me hanging in there, stay awake”, all while sitting them up, which is the wrong thing to do on a shock patient. And they’ve died from a preventable bleed out when a pressure point or simple application of a make shift tourniquet would save their lives. Domestic terrorism is a threat, and our population lacks the health literacy to have street smarts for how to survive, stay alive and thrive.

 Next, our national infrastructure is crumbling. When Eisenhower built the Interstate highways, some of them were built with enough concrete and rebar to be runways. There was a lot of thought that went into the ability to move troops quickly to the coast, For instance, from Fort Indiantown Gap to Philadelphia or Letterkenny Army Depot, to Baltimore Harbor.  Those routes and the train routes that, parallel the highways are crumbling. The bridges need repair across the country. When you travel to other countries and see some of their skylines, you cannot believe it’s on Earth because your baseline of reference is New York, Chicago, Tulsa, or other places. What other countries have invested in terms of their infrastructure, skylines, high-speed rail quality roads, hovercraft and regional airports makes me sad. We have watched our rail system, denigrates to nothing as we brag and talk about what we knew about global warming.  As a society we have not funded our public transportation. Instead, most of us have a gas burning car.  Those gas emissions at the point of use from the tailpipe. Some are using electric cars, but many of them are burning coal down the road in someone else’s backyard to make electricity. We are not riding or funding the train or the bus.

More lessons… Our sense of unity after 911 has evaporated and become even worse. It’s become a disinformation sharing, divisiveness, various agendas, between political parties and between different classes of people. Frankly I’m embarrassed by the, images we’ve shared overseas and with the way we behave with things.  I’m not trying to be political here, but whatever side you’re dealing with, do you have doubts a little bit about the election? What’s real, what’s fake, what’s big news what’s fake “balanced reporting”.  Who is being manipulated by the far right or the far left. Those of us in the middle, that might be more moderate, or I even as I call myself independent because I’m not fully in agreement with what either party’s doing. And I don’t want to be constrained by voting one way or the other. I’m embarrassed by how many people choose not to vote.  We’re not a United States population right now. We are clusters of groups that are looking after themselves first, not their fellow citizens. When we look at something like that, let’s just talk a little bit about what’s going on now with the pandemic.  Those first responders that went to work every day at 911, …those cops, they didn’t feel like they did anything brave that day. They showed up for work and there was yet another challenge. It was no more scary to them, in many ways, they said, said than in middle of the night, in their police car, at the side of the road to give a speeding ticket.  You never know who’s in there, and if they would pull a gun and shoot you in the face.  At least with 911, with the buildings, with the evacuation, with the dust and smoke, they know what they’re dealing with. The lack of knowing what we’re dealing with right now with COVID is something else. But the are folks showed up despite the risks. They took the job, even though it had risks.  For COVID are shown up with risks. Fellow pulmonologists, like myself, are showing up in hospitals and working with patients on ventilators. They’re taking risks along with the nurses that are there.  A recent report showed that there’s 1800 nurses on one list that have died from COVID.

They take a risk every day going to work to care for the rest of us, just like those police officers are doing… in case someone’s driving that car to your backyard to go rob you… just like our military is doing in Afghanistan or other places in the world…just as my father did during World War II with Iwo Jima.  They didn’t want to take a risk and be shot at, but they did it because it was the best for our cause. Currently we have people that are putting themselves before the risk of taking the vaccine, claiming they are Patriots, and that’s their rights to potentially be infected, carry a virus, have that virus mutate and share it with others.  They are not wearing the mask, because they feel like it’s a, some sort of a ploy or plan to, manipulate their personal freedoms. It is.  It affects your personal freedoms but also affects your risk.  Nothing is safe, really, but it’s a matter of relative safety. If I know that I can wear a mask and help prevent my family or my neighbors, my sister, with her bone marrow transplant, from getting infected, I’m going to do it even though it’s uncomfortable. It’s sweaty. It’s it gives me acne at age 67. It gives me, fogged up glasses. You do it because it’s best for everyone. It’s good for myself, but it’s best for everyone. And that sense of sacrifice for all of us…ALL OF US Americans, is missing.

Secondly, we’re in a world now that is much smaller than it was on 9/11/2001.  Instantly we can see facetime feeds of violence, cameras that are on dashboards or on the officer’s vest are instantly shared. We are able to fly with a credit card just about anywhere in the world we wish, or for that matter paddle across the river into another country, almost not dealt with. So we need to think worldwide. We need to think as citizens of a world, as a generation as a post COVID cohort of worldwide health citizenship is what’s needed. In the book I talked about, Freedom Generation.  It’s the same kind of thing. We need freedom from this fear.

We have all competed in an Olympic like event. you guys. For the last year or so, we are alive. You are watching this. I’m talking to you and I feel pretty good today on August 26th, 2021.   I’m alive after dealing with COVID. I am fortunate that some of  my own children or their in-laws have had COVID infections and have survived. We are alive. Well, we continued to survive, but really my goal here, when talking with us all is can we thrive. This is our life. This is the life for my kids and grandkids. We need to thrive as citizens of the world, being concerned on a very selfish basis, that a pocket of, of disease that brews somewhere else elsewhere in the world, as we get our third shot and someone else isn’t getting their first.  That pocket of infection will mutate and become not the Delta that maybe the Mu, Gamma, or the Sigma or whatever other very going forward.

So, from a selfish standpoint, we need to think worldwide in terms of being sure people have the basics, proper nutrition and housing and access to healthcare. They also need access to the very basics of masks, distancing, some sort of income, and vaccinations. It’s an absolute miracle, and I’m not the biggest Trump fan in the world, but I am got to say what he did is Nobel prize worthy. He took a risk as the President of United States with a public private partnership with an unprecedented guaranteeing the pharmaceutical firms, that if they built the product that he would buy it, even if it didn’t work.  And it worked. He got the shot. It’s over 90% effective. It’s FDA approved. This would have taken two or three years. If we had the ability to jumpstart this, instead of 700,000 dead Americans, right now, there’d probably be 2 or 3 million. The vaccine has changed everything. So now we have a prevention tool set of tools, based on our behaviors with hand washing,  face covering, social distancing, and especially the vaccine.

When you then look out for each other when we’re not injured, when we are not ill. I don’t think we’re yet prepared as a country or as a people to be resilient and to be aligned for each other. I think the lessons learned after 911 was very patriotic at the time, but it was very much, “We can come back from this. We’re tough.” Later, “We’re Boston strong” after the bombing. I think we need to be a COVID confidence culture. We need to be able to say, we can conquer this.  We need to be, have the resilience to say, crap is going to happen. Stuff’s going to happen. People, you know, will die. We’re experiencing grief. People we know will be depressed. We’ll see suicides. People we know will be poor with their job change or their lives disrupted. We need to be able to be resilient say “I’ve got the knowledge, skills, and resources to bounce back”.  As communities, we need to put a COVID force in place that helps reinforce the prevention, but also helping people recover.  Helping people with an income with that mental health support with physical, rehabilitation. We need to look out for our neighbors.  When people in our community are putting together policies, we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of the safety net that just catches someone when they fall through the cracks with that net catching them and it gets them on welfare, get someone on unemployment, gets them on stuff. We need to really look at how can we have someone in the system, how can that net be a trampoline and how can it bounce them back to a higher level than before they got them into our system, not just maintain them at the lowest level.

We need to think as communities as the main lesson.  We need to think as ordinary people, what can we do on a one off basis locally, all over the world. Every disaster happens locally. Every disaster happens locally.  When you die, it’s where you’re at. When you’re in a fire, it’s where the building’s burning.  Dealing with that locally, in different locations all over the world, is how we need to be prepared from a resilience standpoint, physically in as best of shape as possible, mentally and spiritually, ready to tackle the challenges that all that behind us. We need to have empathy, to look out for our fellow person, be it a peer, a spouse or child, family member, or a community member. We need to have empathy also for people around the world. And when we have our stuff covered locally, and when we’re healthy enough to take care of ourselves and then take care of our communities, our families, and our local community will have excess. With that excess and energy, ask what can we do to help others elsewhere in the world that are trying to do the same thing?

We need to be resilient, empathic, knowledgeable, health literate, financially, social impact and policy literate. We need leaders that can step up and help be smart as possible to help their communities and help others.  Resiliency, empathy, health, and financial literacy, civics, and then the will to take action. We need to be like all the little butterflies all over the earth, doing their wings. And as the analogy is, as, as they flap their wings, that affects something somewhere else in the world with a little bit of wind, they create.  All of our actions as ordinary people. Every day…this lesson I learned… every day, don’t end the day, unless someone’s life is better because you’ve done something kind or meaningful to advance their life that day on this Earth.  Ordinary people doing ordinary things every day will allow us in extraordinary times to step up and have those things really help resolve problems.

We can thrive in COVID. We can thrive after this Afghanistan thing.  We can thrive, hoping our refugees, that are appropriate to stay in the country, to do well and, helping them settle elsewhere in the world as well.  We can help make it a better place by being ordinary people in extraordinary times. You know guys,  we’re in a slow motion 911 disaster. I did this in front of this backdrop behind me, the size of maybe 10 football fields. That’s it one day. Okay. We had the Pentagon, you know, bless those guys there. We had Shanksville Flight 93.  This was a pinpoint strike in a short period of time. We are in the 911 moment of our lifetime right now, and it’s worldwide and it’s ongoing. Our 911 is  COVID and hate. And we have to fight those two enemies as a united society with, as ordinary people, really stepping up in these extraordinary times.  We need to do it every day on a hyper-local basis, everywhere we are so we can have a global impact.  As Dr. Michael Diamond has taught me, we can have a “GLOCAL” effort to be a force for health.

I appreciate you listening to me, ramble here. As I look back in 20 more years and I hope to think about the contributions a global force for health made. We are making much of our Force for Health Network available to the world at no cost.  For those that become Ambassadors, we’ll charge it token fee and that’ll help fund scholarships and sustain this program. And by the way, if anyone pays for donates on this book, God bless you. We appreciate it. Any net proceeds from that will go to support the 911 Memorial Trail Foundation (911trail.org). It will also go to support emergency response units anywhere in the world that need resources. And we’ll see if we end up with enough that we can share, effectively.  Thank you for your attention. Smile. We are living in a time where we can make a difference as an ordinary citizen. We can tell stories from this time because our grandkids will be asking us about it and your grandkids will be asking you about it.  What story are you going to talk about how you were just an ordinary person and did some extraordinary things.  My favorite are those who showed up before vaccines to support the supply chain of food production so that I could cook and eat, and really have a wonderful year. In some regards, living with my wife and isolation, as people harvested and prepared our food. They drove it across country before there were vaccines with epidemic going on. It showed up at grocery stores, where many as a minimum or low wage employees were risking their lives so that I could not be burdened.  Extraordinary people doing extraordinarily brave things. Celebrate and support them. Thank you for your support and for your interest.

Be a force for health.

There are lessons learned that really weren’t taken to heart. We have a list of issues that need some real attention because my generation dropped the ball and its time for yours to pick it up and make it right.

It is to pause, think, and then get ready to act. Become resilient servant leaders.

Think GloCal. Think Globally. Act Locally.

You have the power to use your knowledge, skills and resources to be a resilient, empathic, kind health promoting citizen of the world to make a difference locally, all over the world.