Disaster medicine

‘Severe personal violation and loss’: NY area DOs recall serving in hospitals on 9/11

DOs who were called to serve that day share their memories of their experience, how the attack affected them and their reflections 20 years later.

Many Americans remember exactly where they were on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when news broke of the tragic terrorist attacks that would impact U.S. policy and culture for decades. New York area DOs and medical professionals who were immediately called to nearby hospitals to treat wounded victims have particularly poignant and indelible memories of that day.

The DO recently spoke with two physicians who rushed to New York area hospitals on 9/11. They shared their memories of their experience, how the attack affected them and their reflections 20 years later.

Calls to action

When word of the attacks first arrived, a New Jersey emergency call summoned Martin Levine, DO, MPH, to report to his nearest hospital, which happened to be Bayonne Hospital. Located directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Bayonne Hospital is where first responders transported the first casualties by boat because the streets in lower Manhattan were shut down.

Upon arrival, Dr. Levine, who served as the AOA’s 2011-2012 president, describes his initial feelings as “severe personal violation and loss,” a sentiment that was echoed throughout the country. Dr. Levine worked until the ferries stopped bringing people over.

Robert Goldberg, DO, was teaching at New York Medical College when an alarm blast went off, instructing all doctors to report to their primary hospital. Dr. Goldberg ran into the nearest office and saw the first plane strike the towers on TV. He got right to work at St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center of NYC, which is in Manhattan.

“I directed the conversion of the rehabilitation unit to expand the contiguous ER space and reassigned residents, therapists, and transporters to await the anticipated crush of patients,” says Dr. Goldberg. “Hoards of people walked in looking like they were in The Night of the Living Dead, but they were alive.”

None of the physicians at St. Vincent’s left the hospital for three days, though some of them had little to do because they were waiting for updates and they had not received the specialized training needed. Dr. Goldberg’s feet blistered, and he never wore those shoes or clothes again.

“I was approached by plastic surgeons who volunteered to help and the administrator asked me what to do with them,” says Dr. Goldberg. “I told her to give them coffee and donuts that were donated to us and send them away.”

It didn’t make sense to enlist the help of these physicians when Dr. Goldberg did not know who they were or where they came from, he noted.

“That experience was the impetus for me to encourage the Medical Society of New York to prepare Physician ID cards—something they continue to produce today so in emergencies we will know who they are and what training they had served,” he says.

Heartbreaking tragedy

Working with the 9/11 patients was wrenching, says Dr. Levine.

“One had no obvious external (or internal) injuries, but wouldn’t stop screaming,” he says. “One was an NYPD sergeant with a 20-inch shard of glass inside her bulletproof vest stuck in her back, which sliced open her scalp. She wouldn’t relinquish her sidearm to go to surgery for removal of the glass, even to another police officer.”

Dr. Goldberg says nothing prepared him for 9/11.

“I had never participated in disaster drills,” he says. “I did not receive specialized training, but I was able to assess need and looked for a channel through the chaos.”

Seeing such a tragedy in the city that they saw everyday was heartbreaking, both DOs said. Dr. Levine drove over the New Jersey Turnpike bridge every day with the Twin Towers in his view, and Dr. Goldberg attended meetings in the Twin Towers as a Blue Cross Blue Shield board member. One of its meetings was originally scheduled for Sept. 12, 2001.

“My patients who commuted to NYC daily were terribly affected and some never returned to that place of work,” says Dr. Levine.

Lessons learned

Twenty years later, both Dr. Levine and Dr. Goldberg still apply the lessons they learned on 9/11 to their practice of medicine. The biggest takeaway for Dr. Levine was learning his role and being understanding of the patient.

“Mental health issues especially need to be addressed when a cataclysmic event happens in a community,” says Dr. Levine. “In some cases, we’ll never return to normal.”

All these years later, Dr. Levine still carries the despair he felt for his patients in 2001. He also still lives and works in the area. In 2013, he provided disaster response care during another high-profile terrorist attack, the Boston Marathon bombing.

St. Vincent hospital, where Dr. Goldberg helped out, never recovered financially after 9/11 and was forced to close a few years later, ripping friends and colleagues apart. Recently, a few of the physicians got together in the city for dinner to reminisce and pay respect to the memories.

“I want to think I have more patience after that experience,” Dr. Goldberg says. “I dedicated myself to academics to better prepare a generation of physicians ready to face whatever is thrown at them, from Ebola to COVID. One never knows what is needed. Apply everything you were taught and rely on teams to set the charge.”

Dr. Goldberg still works in Greenwich Village in Manhattan and feels closer to the city than he thought possible.

“I fear it will happen again,” says Dr. Goldberg. “But with the advent of hospital closures and private equity expanding throughout the system, our dedication to charity care will be threatened. My training and experience prepared me to take a leading role to adapt and determine strategic approaches to a crisis. We all have the drive; I hope few have the need.”

Related reading:

West, Texas, fertilizer explosion: DO first responder reflects on recovery, 5 years later

Mass casualty incidents: 5 things emergency medicine doctors need to know

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