Chapter 7: Finding Help, Finding Answers
I became physically and emotionally exhausted after just five days. The pace was relentless. We needed more help. The political issues with the NYPD and the unions were unsolvable. The stories of heroism and grief were amazing, yet painful to hear. I was getting little sleep on the floor, especially because word got out that there was a doctor in the building.
Officers who were quiet amid the chaos of the non-stop clinic activity were now open and even tearful when I spoke to them one-on-one. I learned that sharing their concerns about mental health can often lead to a loss of routine assignments, to being forced to turn in their weapons, and to being assigned light duty.
No one wanted to fail to help at Ground Zero. No one wanted a light-duty mental-health black mark on his or her record. In order to get one officer some help that he desperately needed, I encouraged him to seek counseling for his family, so that he could also receive mental health support that way, without allowing it to impact his record. I later learned that he did follow through and was extremely grateful.
I went home to Lancaster to recruit more assistance. I was grateful to learn that a single announcement in two churches filled a van with helpers and additional supplies. My wife, Beth, accompanied me on the return trip to NYC, and my in-laws volunteered to care for our daughters. The crew took a church van and went to manage the growing mountain of paperwork and to do data entry on six laptops loaned by Acorn Press, a company that instantly and enthusiastically gave us anything we needed. Some volunteers were trained to do the tests and others, such as Beth, to interview the officers and fill out the forms. Beth later confided in me that these interviews were some of the most compelling conversations that she’d had in her life.
When it was time to sleep, it was a pleasant surprise to learn that word had gotten out about our efforts and that rooms had been made available for us, at no charge, at leading hotels and clubs in New York. The Lancaster volunteers slept at the Yale Club and the Mansfield Hotel. The staff thanked us “for the privilege of letting them help in this little way.”
I returned home for two more breaks from the clinic over three weeks. Dr. Roberts and his key foundation people did not take any breaks. Using a cell phone, he coordinated the expert advice and logistics of the operation. The regular phone service in Lower Manhattan was not dependable and there was no internet access in the building. My own cell phone bill alarmed me in November, when I saw that is was over $600.
By the time the Ground Zero Clinic activities were finishing up, the Pile had been reduced from an eighty-foot tangled mess to a giant hole in the ground. With its line of trucks, the Red Zone more resembled a construction site than the war zone we had previously seen. Everyone finally had the correct respirator masks and hard hats. Few were using the masks, however, for reasons previously mentioned.
It is important to note that the volunteers in our clinic were a fraction of the monumental volunteer effort at Ground Zero and throughout the city. The Salvation Army and Red Cross people were everywhere and helped with everything. I expected that from those two critically important groups, having witnessed their cool and efficient presence and work at significant national and community disasters over the years.
The police were also served by volunteers. Two police officers—one from Toledo, Ohio, and another from Deerfield, Illinois—were there, not to win personal gain, admiration, media attention, or “thank you” notes. Instead, they worked the tedious, boring, and often dangerous traffic beats and guarded water supplies to help free up the local officers for tasks they needed to do related to the attacks. I also talked with workers from the communications union, the Department of Sanitation, Ironworkers, National Guard, and reservists who were there to help. Some were volunteers. Others were called in as part of their jobs.
One of the most touching things I witnessed was the response of the neighborhoods. Police officers were previously not allowed to take even a cup of coffee for free. Now, in the 13th Precinct, a classic community police station that resembles the set from NBC’s TV classic “Hill Street Blues,” we experienced a steady stream of food brought in by families of victims, who encouraged and thanked the officers. Local restaurants and neighbors organized a continuous supply of wholesome, homecooked food. When officers needed a break, they knew they could find something to eat without any hassle.
Likewise, in the same location of the precinct hall, a supply of toiletries and underwear were available. I found myself in need of those items during the end of my first tour of duty, and a T-shirt I had grabbed during one day while working at Ground Zero had the following message scrawled on it: “Here’s a hug from Toledo, Thanks!” I thought of Corporal Klinger, a character from the TV show M*A*S*H who was a medic from Toledo, and I mused about what those officers in the Korean War must have endured compared to my glorified health-fair activity in New York.
My involvement as a volunteer triggered awkward, mixed feelings: appreciation, a desire to help, and a sense of guilt, because I had become a part of history, but felt that I had done little to deserve this role. Sometimes I felt almost like a small-time celebrity who had the privilege to be in the midst of real heroes. It was as though astronaut Neil Armstrong had said, “Son, why don’t you come along with me to the moon?” Or as if Derek Jeter had invited me into the Yankees’ locker room to celebrate a World Series victory.
To put it simply, I soon realized that I was in over my head. In fact, that had become apparent the first day I went down to Ground Zero. I had borrowed an NYPD identity card and made my way past nine checkpoints to find myself wandering around at the base of the ruins. Because there was no way for civilians to get clearance to enter Ground Zero’s Red Zone that first day, I had borrowed the ID from a grateful officer who wanted me to see for myself what the officers were being exposed to at the site. Looking back on that incident later, I could have been arrested for impersonating an officer, gaining unlawful entry to a crime scene and possible conspiracy to commit terrorism. This was far out of my realm of experience.
While training as a pulmonary expert, I had little experience in occupational exposures such as those afflicting the officers. I needed help beyond the chaos that was overwhelming the authorities, who released conflicting reports—reports of which the officers were highly skeptical and distrustful.
What to do when you find yourself in uncharted territory? We all—each of us in America—felt this way on September 11. What do we do in response?