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Sep. 11 2009 - 9:42 am | 60 views | 2 recommendations | 5 comments

9/11/01: If you don’t remember, you forget

World Trade Center aerial view March 2001

World Trade Center

7 years 364 days 23 hours 19 minutes and 20 seconds before I started this post American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. By the time I post it it will be more than 8 years ago. A long time. And nothing. If you don’t take time to remember, you forget.

I had a patient until 10, and then another appointment at 10:10. I had gotten off the subway around 9 AM at 7th and 12th St. There was already a scar on the North Tower. People were starting to gather on corners to stare. By the time I walked across 12th St. to 6th and looked down the avenue there was smoke and fire coming out of the second tower. People started saying it must be an attack, not an accident: especially in crises, we’re NY-ers.

As that first session finished, my patient and I feel things rumble and shake. Palpable relief, must be helicopters and planes flying to the rescue–sometimes hope is ubiquitous in psychotherapy. My next patient comes in and says a tower fell down. What?!?! I leave her sitting in my office frantically calling her friend who works at the WTC, her friend ran late that morning and was OK. I run to the corner and see sky. At 10:30 when the ground rumbled we both knew what had happened.

It’s now 11:15 or so. My wife and family are all safe. All appointments cancelled. The radio carries a request from the Red Cross for mental-health professional volunteers. I start trekking uptown to 64th Street. I know its more than 50 blocks but I had to do something. 6th Ave. has few cars, many sooty people slowly walking north. I see a cab driver sitting by the curb. I tell him I’m a doctor and have to go to 64th Street to volunteer for the Red Cross. He says get in. He left the meter off and wouldn’t take any money.

Several hours later I’m on Pier 94, one of three professionals with several dozen Red Cross volunteers. We were assigned to what is supposed to be the secondary morgue. My job was to do mental health triage. When relatives and friends walked from the waiting area to the morgue to identify remains, I was to accompany them along with a couple of volunteers just in case there was trouble. We were told what to do. We set up the walkways. We waited. We drank bottles of iced tea. We waited some more. We eventually realized the unimaginable horror of the day, there would be no remains. At 9:30 PM, we were sent home.

By Friday I’m back in the office. I’m sitting with a young pregnant woman I had only known by name. I knew they married, but he stopped seeing me before they decided to start a family. A budding family man already hard at work at his desk when the planes hit. We cried together and I told her to surround herself with family and friends, she didn’t need treatment, she needed love and time. I got a Xmas card and then a birth announcement.

That weekend several colleagues and I setup an online database to register mental and behavioral health clinicians who wanted to volunteer. We registered over 2,000 licensed professionals. We sent along hundreds of names. One request came from St. Paul’s at Ground Zero. They wanted a mental health presence at their relief station. I submitted my name. Wearing a hard-hat, paper mask, and gloves I walked around Ground Zero with ministry students giving bottles of water, Red Bull, and chewing gum to first-responders working the pile. Every few minutes everyone stood respectively still while remains were removed. Life is cherished when it gets taken away.

I met Janet Bachant that night, another psychologist volunteering like I had. She had already started NYDCC (the New York Disaster Counseling Coalition). Her vision was free mental and behavioral health services for all first-responders and their family. They helped us, no questions. Now it was our turn. I joined the Board. But firefighters, cops, EMS workers are helpers, they don’t ask for help even when they need it. So, we went to them. For 6 years, until people started forgetting to remember and funding dried up, we reached thousands and thousands of first-responders and their families. We arranged for free, confidential treatment for PTSD, depression, anxiety, and the like. We did resilience and relationship training, helped with retirement planning. But we also helped ourselves; when you’re feeling helpless, the best thing to do is help someone.

Taking time to remember is the only way not to forget.


5 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    Thanks for sharing; did you read today’s NYT piece about how deeply traumatized many therapists were by treating others’ 9/11 trauma?

    • collapse expand

      No I didn’t see the piece, but I have now, thanks Caitlin. Clyde Haberman actually came to one of our NYDCC fundraisers, but try as we might we never got him interested enough to write about us.

      With our NYDCC network we called it “vicarious traumatization” and tried to be vigilant about protecting our volunteers. Senior clinicians made themselves available for supervision, plus we held “brown bag” support groups, as well as educational programs about trauma work and how to work with first responders.

      What this article leaves out is the other side, how deeply moving the work was. While I have no data, for every moment of vicarious traumatization there were many more moments of “vicarious healing.”

      In addition to the book Haberman mentioned, On the Ground After September 11: Mental Health Responses and Practical Knowledge Gained edited by Danieli and Dingman is worth some attention. It describes the mental health response from the perspective of those who did the work. There were over 100 chapters so it is an uneven work (although I hope my chapter about NYDCC is at least above the mid-point).

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    It is a real privilege to be able to help, in whatever way you could. I won’t say I envy the way you got involved with this, but those shared moments are extraordinary. It is a cliche, but there is comfort and power in that shared experience, knowing others know what you know or feel some of what you feel.

    Tonight at Grand Central I chatted with a young girl who’d been in high school uptown when it happened; we talked about that terrible, indelible, specific smell that covered the city for weeks afterward. No one here will ever forget it and it is virtually impossible to describe.

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