“You can do it sir, be brave,” said Nurse Raquel. I stared at the catheter while nervously holding the phone to my ear.
May 30 marks the 16th anniversary of the end of the 9/11 rescue, recovery and relief efforts. The removal of debris and pulverized ash from the World Trade Center site remediated an environmental challenge. It did not cure an unfolding health crisis for first responders, volunteers, survivors and residents who ingested toxic dust.
A recent report by FDNY’s Bureau of Health Services projected that 2,960 new cancer cases will occur in the 20 years following the 2001 terrorist attack. This nearly matches the documented death toll of 2,996 victims in New York, Shanksville, Pa., and Washington. We seem to be witnessing a grotesque recasting of the movie, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” This time more than 60 types of cancer are stealing lives.
In 2001, I was a married, middle-aged business owner who lived and worked on Hanover Square — three blocks from the World Trade Center. When the Twin Towers fell, I volunteered with the Salvation Army’s relief efforts.
I’m not a hero. I had a moral duty to help. Or perhaps, I felt a sense of guilt about being spared when my fellow members of the World Trade Center Club perished that morning in the North Tower. Regardless, it was the best thing I could do for humanity and to save mine.
I witnessed the heroism and selflessness of first responders at Ground Zero. I dispensed food, water and respirators, rather trivial tasks, while fireman and policeman saved lives. Yet, my fate was linked to theirs.
I initially contracted a dry cough and asthma after exposure to the World Trade Center dust cloud. Twelve years later, I was diagnosed with cancer. The World Trade Center Health Organization performed a series of tests and certified that my condition was linked to 9/11 dust exposure.
My first surgery was performed in 2013 at a regional hospital in New Jersey to remove a cancerous growth in my bladder. A second procedure occurred in the fall of 2017 at the Rutgers Cancer Institute in New Brunswick. The cancer returned in the spring of 2018. I needed more surgery. I hoped it was still Stage 1 and treatable.
My girlfriend’s brother, a cardiothoracic surgeon, implored me to get another opinion at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital in New York. My urologist was a Harvard-trained physician who performed 600 procedures annually. He also participated in clinical trials of promising new treatments. I liked the calculus that his talent and experience would improve my odds of beating this body snatcher. My darkest fear was that the cancer had advanced to Stage 2. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live without my bladder.
Nightmares I had grown used to in the immediate aftermath of the attacks returned the week before my procedure. I revisited the grotesquely shaped metal girders, soiled first responders and whaling rescue dogs. I tasted, chewed and choked on the gritty air. My nostrils flared from being violated by hot, acrid smells, akin to snorting incinerator ash. My taste buds awoke to the sickeningly bitter taste of pulverized concrete, asbestos and the unthinkable.
I wondered if my girlfriend would want to continue our relationship. Why should my curse of 9/11 be hers?
I returned to the conversation. “Sir, are you still there? Please give it a try.”
I followed instructions and placed a syringe into the yellow plug on the catheter. I watched as 10 cc of clear fluid mysteriously filled the vial. I placed the catheter in my hands, took a deep breath and pulled.
“Nurse, I did it.”
“Congratulations, sir, you are very brave.”
I hung up and called my girlfriend and shared the news.
“Wow, you are really brave, or crazy. No matter what happens, I’m here for you.”
Two days later I received the biopsy report. The cancer hadn’t advanced.
I wondered about how many other 9/11 cancer victims faced similar challenges and decisions. I thought about my choices and those who intervened in my life crisis to make the decision to visit Memorial Sloan Kettering. My girlfriend and her brother may have saved my life. And yes, my life was worth living.