Chapter 5: Asking the Right Questions
At the clinic, each day saw more and more officers seeking medical checkups. During the first days, we admitted about seventy people. By the end of our stay in New York, we had seen nearly 1,800 officers in three weeks. The staff that volunteered did not always have the appropriate skills to perform these tests—an ECG technician had cross-trained to do a spirometry, a spirometry technician had cross-trained to do ECG’s—but we used our equipment to train them for quick, on site in-service. Every day in the clinic was challenging, and it was busy.
The results we found caused us concern. Abnormalities in breathing tests and cardiac profiles were much higher than expected, and we struggled with finding the best ways to get these officers the appropriate follow-up care.
In order to understand and document the health risks the officers had experienced, we needed to question the officers thoroughly. We later learned that the form we put together for this purpose did not capture all the data we would soon wish we had. When it got busy, we relied on the officers to fill out the form on their own, but on returning home, we discovered that when no volunteer was present to ask questions, the officers sometimes left some of the answers blank, or were inconsistent in their replies.
During that questioning, however, the facts that emerged, and the stories that were told, dramatically illustrated the exposures that these men and women endured: Were they there for the first Tower collapse, the second, or both? Did they arrive in the first hours after the collapse, later that day, or on subsequent days? Did they work on the Pile or secure the perimeter a few blocks away? Did they have a mask and if so, what type? How did it fit, and did they actually wear it? Are they experiencing symptoms now? If so, how bad are they, and when did they begin? Are they getting treatment for their problems? Do their supervisors know about any problems they may be experiencing? What previous health problems do they have? Have they ever had a breathing test before so we may compare results?
Approximately one-third of the officers we talked to were there when the building crashed to the ground. They had received calls for all available officers to assist in the fire in the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. Many saw it fall first-hand, from a distance. Others ran for their lives. Others told of friends who lost their lives. In the building where we were holding the tests, they all knew Glenn, the videographer who was there to tape the scene for future training. A now-macabre graphic, created a month earlier and mounted on a door of the department, showed Glenn, a camera on his shoulder, with the World Trade Towers in the viewfinder.