NEW YORK NURSE: September 2009
by Randi Hoffman
“Last year on September 11, we had a firefighter out bicycling with his wife, and he went into acute emotional distress,” said Nora Maloney, a nurse with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). “He had been trapped in one of the towers on 9/11.”
Although eight years have passed since the attacks on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, the days before and after Sept. 11 are still difficult for everyone in the fire department. “Firefighters revisit the day mentally,” said Eileen O’Brien, also a nurse with the FDNY. “It starts at the end of August; they start worrying, they’re not feeling well, they get depressed.”
In October 2001, the FDNY launched the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program, which evaluates and treats first responders who worked at and were exposed to the World Trade Center site during the 9/11 rescue and subsequent clean-up. Every year about 10,000 active firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and paramedics are seen, along with approximately 3,000 to 4,000 retirees.
There are 17 nurses, both full- and part-time, working in the program, which is federally funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH has also funded a no-cost prescription program for WTC-related conditions.
To reach firefighters closer to their homes, in September 2007 the FDNY added four satellite centers for treatment and monitoring in Staten Island, Fort Totten in Queens, Brentwood in Suffolk County, and Middletown in upstate Orange County.
The sites were added to the Metrotech Center clinic in Brooklyn and a counseling center on Lafayette Street in Manhattan. The bicyclist was headed for the Staten Island satellite when he went into distress.
“Initially, we were seeing people with sinus problems, respiratory bronchitis, and mental health issues,” said Maloney. “A year and a half ago, we started a program for people who had swallowed the dust rather than inhaling it. We reached out to G-I doctors.”
There has been a recent influx of delayed post-traumatic stress disorder among retirees. “Retirees don’t have the camaraderie of the fire house, so it takes them longer to come in,” Maloney said.
Forty retired firefighters serve as peer counselors. “We have a special training for peer counselors, and they have gone on to train others, some as far away as Georgia” said O’Brien. “Family counseling is also a strong component of the program for the friends, family and children of firefighters.”
Maloney said the nurses are also staying in contact with two firefighters slated for lung transplants at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
When first responders enter the program, they receive ongoing medical monitoring and basic treatment, said RN Mary-Jo O’Grady. While they might come in with a physical ailment, the nurses often find underlying psychological problems, she said.
Maloney added that the city’s bravest must be constantly re-evaluated, even years after the WTC attack. “They think that men are strong, that they don’t get depressed. We are able to counsel them and provide treatment. It’s pretty rewarding when you find someone who didn’t know what was wrong with them, and they come back smiling.”