I was a Med/peds intern then, based at a small community hospital about 1 hours’ drive from New York City. I had been on call overnight on the Pediatrics ward, and we were in the middle of morning rounds. The entire team was standing around a patient’s bed, a preadolescent boy with his leg in a cast and in traction; if I remember right, he’d been in a car accident, and except for a minor concussion and some broken bones, he was fine. The TV was on, with the volume low, in the corner. When we walked into the room to discuss the days’ plan, he and his mother were oddly distracted by the TV. The attending noticed this and glanced up at it, kind of annoyed at first.
It’s serious, said the mother. A plane hit the World Trade Center. They’re saying it might be terrorism. And we all, the attending, interns, residents, and med students, stood around this poor kid’s bed and stared up at the corner TV for a good long while. He and his mom were quite transfixed as well, so it seemed OK. We watched the second plane hit, heard the announcer sound a little bit panicked. The attending stepped away, quickly reviewed the plan with the mother, and we all stepped out into the hallway.
Many members of the team had relatives and friends in New York, and there was a bit of an awkward yet determined scramble to break from rounds to go make phone calls. The attending nixed that, told us all to stay focused on our patients and finish rounding. I was thinking of my little brother, fresh out of college, an overworked financial analyst at a firm in Manhattan. I had no idea where his office was located.
We had about 6 more patients to see and plans to review, and we did it, at lightning speed. The orders went in, the patient care safely underway. And then we scattered.
I ran to the conference room and tried calling my brother. No answer. I called my mom. She was already on it. Between us we tried calling his cell and work number multiple times with no answer. I felt sick, just this intense, queasy desperation. I remember making sure there was a garbage can in the room, just in case. I slid to the ground and hoped no one would find me or page me to be anywhere or expect me to do anything doctorly. I knew that I was useless for any patient care, or anything, until I located my brother.
It was my mom who finally thought to call him at his uptown apartment. He was home, in bed. He’d been up all night working on a presentation, which he was supposed to give in the afternoon, so he was sleeping in that morning. His office was Midtown, so he would have been fine. But it was ironic that it was our mom, hundreds of miles away, who told him to turn on the TV.
When she called me to tell me that he was safe, it was like someone suddenly gave me air, and I could breathe again. I was able to put away the phone, and though I was still lightheaded and shaky for awhile, I went back to work. I was exhausted.
Meantime, the hospital where I was rotating had a burn unit, which was mobilized. We expected to get overflow burn victims from the disaster. None came; there were so few survivors.
I was allowed to leave the hospital after my 30-plus-hour shift; I felt ghostly, spent. I made my way back to my apartment and tried to sleep, but I could not stop watching TV coverage of the attack. It didn’t seem real. Finally I turned it off, and somehow I collapsed into sleep.
My brother’s roommate worked at a business in the World Trade Center complex. We learned later that and he was just getting off the train when the first plane hit. He described how he had stood watching, until people started jumping; then, he got very freaked out and left. He was a safe distance away when the towers fell, and he made his way on foot all the way back uptown, to the apartment. He was quite shaken, maybe in a bit of shock, for awhile.
My brother left the then-lucrative business world soon thereafter, and went on a completely different track, as a pre-med. He’s a doctor now. I’ve never asked him how that day may have influenced his radical career switch, but I bet it did.
The past few weeks, the anniversary, is surreal; It seems both so recent and so long ago. I find myself drawn to news stories about it, especially people’s stories, about where they were and what they were doing and thinking when it all happened. I know I was surprised by my own helpless and visceral reaction, my own complete paralysis. I wonder how I might react in future crises. I hope I could stay functional, but I know now, that may be beyond my control.
I wonder what others learned about themselves that day.