9/11 First Responders Recount Illnesses from Ground Zero Work

Newsday - September 10, 2016

by Carol Polsky

Daniel Rodriguez was a police officer on Sept. 11, 2001, who found himself assigned to a temporary morgue near the downed towers, where he said “you can’t help but see things.” He became much better known in the days and years afterward when his rich tenor earned him fame as the “The Singing Policeman” and the “voice that healed a nation” in a succession of renditions of the national anthem and “God Bless America” at a 9/11 tribute at Yankee Stadium, on talk shows, at numerous events and funerals.

But that didn’t protect him from a 9/ll-related illness and a bout with post-traumatic stress syndrome, which he recounted Thursday at Northwell Health’s New Hyde Park offices, where a panel of six employees and patients discussed their 9/11 experiences. The health care company, formerly known as North Shore-LIJ, was among those that sent responders and resources to the scene of the attack. It now oversees clinics treating first responders like Rodriguez who continue to suffer from ailments 15 years after the attacks.

Rodriguez, 52, who lives in Brooklyn and retired from the NYPD in 2004, was operated on in February for an infection from a sinus polyp that had eroded bone and exposed his brain cavity. The episode triggered symptoms of anger, depression and confusion harbored since 9/11. He’s now registered with Northwell’s WTC clinic for regular checkups. “It’s a hard way to live, wondering if that one cramp in your leg or a cough is the onset of your turn with some of the 9/11 illnesses that kill” so many responders, he said. “There’s always that specter over your shoulder.”

Thousands of first responders — police officers, firefighters, emergency service and sanitation workers as well as volunteers from the construction industry and from across the nation — and people who lived and worked in lower Manhattan are suffering from a host of respiratory, gastrointestinal and other ailments from breathing in toxic air. Cancers attributed to the intake of chemical pollutants are showing up as the years go by, as are other lung, autoimmune and asbestos-related illnesses.

The clinics monitoring and treating responders under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010, are now funded, under last year’s reauthorization, until 2090. That will allow monitoring of all responders and their offspring for signs of illness caused by genetic mutations, possibly from chemical exposures at Ground Zero.

“We don’t know the long-term genetic effects of this, and that will be key,” said Dr. Michael Guttenberg, now Northwell’s medical director for emergency services and for clinical preparedness. As an Emergency Medical Services fellow for the FDNY in 2001, he spent 16-hour days at Ground Zero. In 2013, after noticing fatigue, itching and abdominal pain, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer for which he is still being treated. “Especially when you talk about cancer — younger people are having children and getting sick.”

“Everybody suffers in their own way,” he said, noting common symptoms such as gastroesophageal reflux, coughing, unexplained nosebleeds and pulmonary and GI ailments. “It is 15 years later and it’s not over” as responders and those who lived and worked in lower Manhattan “continue to suffer in staggering numbers.”

In his panel remarks, he said world events show “safety and security risks remain regardless of scale,” yet the further in time from Sept. 11, 2001, the “harder it is to train our current public safety and health care providers of the risks we encountered as their priorities and perspectives differ.”

Others on the panel included Northwell’s security director Scott Strauss, who as an NYPD officer in the Emergency Services Unit helped rescue two Port Authority police buried 30 feet under the rubble in harrowing conditions of fire, heat and the threatened collapse of a nearby building. The rescue was portrayed in Oliver Stone’s 2006 film “World Trade Center.” He said, “I was in a bad place at the right time with a great group of people to do what we had to do.”

Recently retired city transit bus driver Nick Rotondo — better known in his sideline as balloon twister Nick the Balloonatic — recounted how he and his bus were commandeered by a police officer for use in transporting responders and medical staff to Ground Zero. The police officer is now one of his best friends, said Rotondo, who receives care through the WTC clinics. He said the anniversary each year was particularly stressful, although the birth two years ago of a granddaughter on 9/11 has made them easier to bear.

And the experiences of 9/11 have brought Bernard Robinson, operations manager for Northwell’s CEMS and a Valley Stream resident, closer to his faith. “I consider 9/11 to be a defining moment in my life,” he said. “I lost friends that day and I’m still losing friends 15 years later.”

That is true for many of the patients Dr. Jacqueline Moline sees as vice president of Occupational Medicine at Northwell and one of the team of physicians who developed the WTC Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program.

“For many people, 9/11 was the defining moment of their lives,” she said, noting that her own medical career veered into care for its victims. “People are still ill after all this time, it remains fresh in their minds to this day and future health conditions can still occur even now and in the future.”