Twenty years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the cost of valor is on display every time the double doors open at the Stony Brook Medicine World Trade Center Health and Wellness Program on Long Island. In Commack (New York), a dozen white armchairs with a few heroes are found in a plainly decorated waiting area. These men and women rushed to ground zero with little more than a sense for duty.
The waiting room is a space where you can meet up with old colleagues or hear about new friends. Some news is positive, while other times the news is bad. They share the same bond of survival. Two decades ago, the worst attack on American soil was suffered by these men and women.
Beyond the wooden door and the plexiglass partition, nurse practitioner Bruno Valenti bobs into exam rooms, performing routine tests on patients. They are his friends. He also undergoes annual monitoring as a retired New York Police sergeant. Twenty years ago, he was also “on the heap”.
“Being part of the program, there are times when I’ll walk out of a patient’s room and just say to myself, ‘I’m lucky,'” Valenti told 60 Minutes Overtime. It doesn’t matter how awful my day seems, or where it is going. There are worse things. There are moments when you need to stop and think. “
Registered nurse Stephen Lengyel seems to know everyone at the WTC clinic despite only working there for eight months. He is also a patient and a provider.
” It’s always great to see old friends,” Lengyel said. And at the same, it was a great opportunity to get to know these people and understand some of their struggles. It was a day that I went down to the hospital, so I know what it is like. We just do our best to make sure everyone is well. “
On September 11, 2001, Lengyel recalled being in a patrol van on New York City’s Triborough Bridge, 12 miles north of the World Trade Center, when at roughly 9 a.m. he saw an explosion out of the window. It was United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower.
Lengyel said his unit was instructed to set-up a command post as close to the World Trade Center as possible.
” We geared up, and started walking toward the World Trade Center. That’s when it fell,” Lengyel recalled. It was a sudden turnaround. We turned and went over the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s the way you run. This way you go, that way you come. We were being attacked by people out of nowhere. “
Lengyel was assigned to the Brooklyn North Task Force and said his unit eventually made it to the rubble and set-up a security perimeter. His two-month stint in Southern Manhattan was recalled by him.
Bruno Valenti did not immediately rush to the World Trade Center. A member of the NYPD Forensic Division, he reported to an office in Jamaica, Queens on 9/11. His commanding officer had placed his unit on alert in the event of additional attacks. They were allowed to assist with ground zero cleanup three days later.
” I remember that it was dark when we first arrived at ground zero. We looked out into the cloudy sky and saw the wreckage. It was surreal,” Valenti said. It was so unbelievable that you couldn’t believe it.
Valenti said he joined the “bucket brigade” on top of the pile where evidence was collected and passed back for processing and safe-keeping.
“I believe the beauty was looking around at how many civilians were there to assist, some of them in the field, but many others were outside, carrying water bottles and trying to help. That moment really captured the goodness in the world and the evil. It made you see that there are good people out there who want to help. We will one day overcome evil, but you never know. “
Lengyel and Valenti now work under Dr. Benjamin Luft, who began the Stony Brook Medicine World Trade Center Health and Wellness Program as a pro bono service to help sick and injured 9/11 survivors and first responders nearly twenty years ago.
“I think that once you begin to take care of a remarkable group of people who are so altruistic, so courageous, so giving, it becomes part of you,” Luft told 60 Minutes Overtime. You become a better person as a result. “
When 60 Minutes first met Luft in 2011, the program had roughly 6,000 patients. Now it monitors or treats more than 12,000 people. Police officers, firefighters, steelworkers and carpenters are among the group.
In his 20 years treating 9/11 survivors and first responders, Luft has diagnosed and studied a litany of ailments associated with the toxins that would come to be found in the rubble of the World Trade Center. One of the most recent to be discovered is cancer. Luft said its latency period can be anywhere from 20 to 30 years.
“The whole area of cancers is evolving,” Luft told 60 Minutes Overtime. “Ten years ago, almost all the cancers that we were aware of we were presumptively associating them with 9/11. It was clear that we were aware of the toxins associated with them and what carcinogens. So, the rational assumption was that anything that can cause you cancer in the future is more likely than if it causes you right now. We are beginning to see signs of this. “
Stephen Lengyel saw it sooner.
“Probably back in 2006, I was working in the emergency room, and one of my coworkers noticed, a rash on my skin, on my arms.” Lengyel stated. Lengyel said, “I have Squamous Basal Cell Cancer. I had several surgeries already. Is it related to 9/11? It could be. You know what? It started right away. “
Lengyel said he goes to the dermatologist every five months to monitor the condition.
Stony Brook’s WTC health program is funded by a contract and grants issued by the federal government as a result of the Zadroga Act, which became law in 2011. The federal government’s World Trade Center Health Program has multiple affiliates including Stony Brook that collect data and track trends in patient health. This information is given to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the program’s governing body. NIOSH keeps a record of which illnesses are covered by the WTC Health Program. In 2012 it added cancer. In 2016 it added Acute Traumatic Injuries and new-onset COPD. For a new ailment to be added to the list, it must be approved by the Program Administrator of the WTC Health Program or proceed through a petition process. NIOSH stated that both options are rich in scientific evidence and data. NIOSH also stated that any person can request to add an illness to their list.
In 2016, Stony Brook’s Dr. Luft and his colleagues published a study about another concerning trend, one that is not explicitly covered by the U.S.’s WTC Health Program – cognitive decline.
Using the MoCA cognitive assessment, the study found that 10 to 15% of the patients analyzed showed signs of decline, a rate three times higher than expected when compared to similarly aged patients from the general population. The data also suggested the study’s participants experiencing cognitive issues were showing signs of impairment at age 55, about ten years earlier than typically seen in the general population. This is a category called “minimal cognitive dysfunction”. Luft stated. Luft said that patients in this area are often free from any impairments that could affect their lives or ability to function. It was not at that time that people were developing dementia. It is important to remember that dementia-prone patients have a higher risk of developing this condition. “
Cognitive dysfunction and dementia are not currently listed as NIOSH-approved ailments covered for treatment through the WTC Health Program. If the patient is suffering from a NIOSH-approved progression, then treatment may be covered.
In a statement issued to 60 Minutes Overtime, Dr. John Howard, the administrator of the World Trade Center Health Program, said the program is currently reviewing a petition regarding neurodegenerative diseases to determine its validity.
Independently, Stony Brook’s Dr. Benjamin Luft is convinced the data demonstrates a clear conclusion.
“Our data is very strong that the cognitive dysfunction that we’re seeing in our patients is related to 9/11,” Luft told 60 Minutes Overtime. Luft stated that he believes that the certification will be certified after proper consideration by NIOSH and that patients will receive the treatment they need. “
The Zadroga Act also established a World Trade Center Victim Compensation Fund, (VCF), that allows victims and first responders financial compensation for NIOSH approved ailments. The VCF doesn’t provide any compensation for injuries other than physical.
NIOSH told 60 Minutes Overtime it has not yet determined if cognitive dysfunction will be classified as a physical or mental condition. The decision will ultimately influence whether 9/11 survivors and first responders suffering from neurodegenerative diseases have the ability to receive compensation from the VCF for their ailments.
The agency has pledged to continue to study how 9/11 exposures are impacting cognitive function amongst those who spent significant time in the exposure zone.
“Future Program-funded research will address limitations that have been observed in existing studies, such as inconsistent definitions of cognitive impairment, inadequate information characterizing baseline risks, exposure misclassification, and a lack of non-exposed comparison groups,” said Dr. Howard, the World Trade Center Health Program director. “Advances in neuroimaging and biomarker research offer potential improvements in surveillance and diagnostic cost and capability for these conditions, while advances in molecular science research may uncover mechanistic data that clarify causal pathways and possibly lead to better care for 9/11-exposed populations.”
Twenty years after Dr. Luft and a group of medical providers began a grassroots movement to help the heroes of September 11, the Stony Brook World Trade Center Health and Wellness Program is still adding patients. Luft stated that the practice is growing by about 8% each year. It is a solemn reminder of the suffering and sacrifices made by those who fought to save their lives from the destruction at ground zero.
” To be heroic is not free,” Luft stated. “There’s a piece of them that they left behind, you know, at 9/11…And this is something that they live with. “
Learn more about Stony Brook Medicine’s World Trade Center Health and Wellness Program through their website.
Supporting 9/11 survivors and first responders
The video above was produced by Keith Zubrow. Sarah Shafer Prediger edited it. Mabel Kabani served as the Broadcast Associate.
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