Where were you on 9/11? The answer matters more than you think

Where were you on 9/11?

I ask all of my patients this question on our first visit. And people often ask me why I want to know. They usually think it’s just out of curiosity, or to make conversation.

But neither assumption is true.

I’m actually asking to find out whether or not my patients may be at risk for certain diseases. Disease that, over the last 15 years, research has directly linked to the catastrophic events of that day.

The World Trade Center attacks were a traumatic blow to the entire nation. But I know for a fact that those of us who lived in NYC at that time have a much more visceral connection to the event than those in the rest of the country. We faced it up close and personal. And we are still dealing with the aftermath.

You may not know this, but the FDNY launched a program to monitor and treat the thousands of New York firefighters and EMTs who were on the scene that day (and in the days afterwards) for long-term medical issues resulting from 9/11 rescue and recovery efforts. They also put together a data center, in order to keep track of health outcomes over the long term.

Enough time has passed now to illuminate disease and complication trends among first responders. And the conclusions that NY public health researchers have reached are both sad and troubling.

For example, respiratory conditions were rare in this group before 9/11. But by 2015, nearly half of these rescue and recovery workers had received diagnoses of obstructive airway disease or chronic sinusitis.

Responders who were on the scene that morning have fared the worst, both physically and mentally.

Here’s a list of the most common problems, to give you a more complete picture of just how serious this is:

• GERD symptoms (acid reflux, sore throat, tight chest) have risen from a rate of 5.2 percent among NYC firefighters to as high as 61 percent.
• Over half of the responders reported coughing after 9/11 — along with shortness of breath and wheezing among 38 percent and 33 percent, respectively. By 2015, formal diagnoses of obstructive airway disease — asthma being the most common — had jumped to nearly 25 percent.
• Overall cancer rates spiked in this population, too, with exposed firefighters suffering rates 10 percent higher than the general population. (Rates of prostate and thyroid cancers are especially high.)
• Despite having no symptoms and normal imaging results prior to 9/11, 75 rescue worker have since been diagnosed with sarcoidosis — an inflammatory disease primarily affecting the lungs and lymph nodes.
• According to mental health questionnaires, alcohol and tobacco use has also risen among rescue and recovery workers, as have rates of depression — particularly among the earliest first responders.

And again, that’s just a brief overview. So is it any wonder that the FDNY saw retirement numbers more than double in the years following 9/11? It certainly makes sense to me.

The good news is that all exposed workers, active or retired, are eligible for free medical treatment to help them manage the physical and mental fallout of their service. And yes, even “alternative” treatments — like supplementation and chelation — are on offer.

But I fear it will never be enough to repay the debt we owe to them. These men and women are truly heroes and they suffered dearly for their bravery. We must never forget the toll that this tragedy took on them — and their health.