9/11’s lasting tragedy - Emergency responder still suffering

By Dyrinda Tyson-Jones
Published on September 13, 2008

Wednesday night, about 15 hours before the nation would pause to remember the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Cervantes gathered with a small crowd in the misty twilight outside the state Capitol for the inaugural We Remember Walk. Cervantes, who worked triage near ground zero at the World Trade Center, helped organize the event.

“It wasn’t a big crowd, but it was enough to create a little positive stuff,” she said. That buoyed her through the evening, but she woke up at 4 a.m. Thursday to rain and the knowledge that Sept. 11 had arrived.

“It’s always hard,” she said. “And I’m not the only one because I was getting e-mails from my colleagues about stuff going on and stuff coming up, so they were up, too.”

For the rescuers like Cervantes, the anniversary brings into focus a harsh reality: Their ranks are growing thinner.

About 70 percent of the rescuers, according to a 2006 study by Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, went on to develop lung problems after working in the swirling cocktail of mercury, silicon, asbestos and other toxins at ground zero.
Cervantes herself was diagnosed with terminal pulmonary fibrosis. They lost two comrades around Labor Day and another, who made a trip out from North Carolina last year to stage a troop-support effort at the Oklahoma State Fair, didn’t feel well enough to make the trip this week.

For a tight-knit community of first responders, every death cuts deep.

“You think, ‘there but for the grace of God,’ then you wonder, ‘when will it be my turn?’” Cervantes said.

In the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the sickened first responders have battled for their lives. Debate continues over whether their illnesses stem from the air at ground zero, their health-care funds were slashed earlier this year and the company the government hired to provide their medical care has been slow to get started.
Many are navigating a Byzantine health care system as uninsured patients, including Cervantes.

But it may go beyond physical costs. Rescue workers and others directly affected by the attacks may have triple the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder, the Washington Post reported Thursday. A Mount Sinai program targeting World Trade Center victims sees 12 percent to 15 percent of its patients still reporting persistent mental health problems even seven years later, a figure its lead doctor characterized as “amazingly similar to combat.”

Access to mental health help for her and her children — daughter Lia, is now 11 and son Buddy Dennis is 9 — drew Cervantes to Oklahoma in 2002 but such counseling is a luxury these days.

“I haven’t had access to continuous mental health counseling in over a year,” Cervantes said. “And before that it was intermittent because it was not being paid for.”

It’s the same for many first responders, she said. Without continuous care to help them deal with the emotional fallout, they end up replaying and reliving those events over and over in their minds.

“This is different from say, a tornado or something like that,” she said. “This was tragic beyond all proportions. It’s hard to stand that.”

Cervante’s experiences in the health-care system have shaped her into an outspoken activist, a calling that got a jump-start last year when she was featured in film-maker Michael Moore’s “SiCKO,” which targeted the American health care system and the rescuers’ woes in particular. She simply wants to educate the public, she said, but the reception isn’t always warm.

“Some people don’t feel like we have the right to sponge off the system,” she said. “If there’s a fire, they expect the firefighters to show up and put it out. But if one of those firefighters gets hurt, they’re on their own.”

In the months after the attacks, first responders began reaching out to one another, knitting together a “silent network” that has become a lifeline. In the beginning, it simply offered moral support,she said. As their needs grew, though, so did the network.

It resembles the six degrees of separation, only the idea is to unite.

“If I know somebody needs meds or if somebody needs help, we start calling each other,” she said. One responder may not be able to help, but they may know someone who knows someone else who can. The calls go on, filtering out across the country. It’s impossible to even guess how many are involved, she said.

But as a gray dawn broke Thursday morning, the most pressing issue was the flag. Oklahoma City’s Fire Company No. 33 has brought a ladder over and helped hang the Cervantes’ American flag on the Sept. 11 anniversary for the last several years. Even the weather couldn’t dampen the tradition. “My son was just thrilled,” she said after the flag was up.

As for Cervantes’ own mindset, she said the effects of the anniversary linger for about a week. “Unless you keep busy,” she added.

Hurricane Ike provided an almost immediate distraction. With gulf coast residents fleeing the storm and possibly heading to Oklahoma City, Cervantes expected to swing into action over the weekend as a member of the Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps. She also planned to join a group Friday protesting President Bush’s visit to Oklahoma and on the next Friday lead the second annual Health Care Justice Vigil, one of several planned across the country.

Later, she heads to New Mexico to speak to its state Legislature and help with fundraising for several grassroots efforts. There’s plenty to do.
“People are willing to volunteer if they have the gas to get there,” she said.

Reality maintains a grip, though.

“The physical and mental issues are in a neck-and-neck race,” she said. “One or the other will kill you. The question is, which one?”

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