Today President Obama visits New York to survey the devastation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Amid the crumpled houses, torn boardwalks, felled trees and downed power lines stand silent sentries -- men and women who have served the entire community even as they themselves devastated by this natural disaster.
New York's First Responders are both victims of Sandy and our public servants at some of our most difficult times. At a time of their own distress during our own hour of need, our first responders have never been more humbling in their courage and generosity, never more American.
Certainly, Mayor Bloomberg, Gov. Cuomo and our county executives clearly rose to the occasion and continue to do so. Without question, it is our first responders who have acted above and beyond the call of duty. Some of have reached out to me, during my consultations as their physician, seeking to meet my concerns, once again over their own.
Winthrop University Hospital, where I practice medicine, is home to the World Trade Center Monitoring Program, which serves 2,500 of Long Island's 6,000 first responders who attended and served the nation during 9/11 and in the long months and years since. As a sleep specialist, I am honored to attend many of these service men and women, who are firemen, policemen, FBI personnel and EMS technicians among others. During our consultations, but particularly after Hurricane Sandy, I have been humbled by every encounter with these patients: They are a breed apart in their unwavering self sacrifice and bravery even as they are cold, tired, sick or sleepless in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
While much of the nation has already forgotten Hurricane Sandy, this area continues to struggle to address the homeless, bereaved and injured for whom life will never be the same. Non-residents cannot grasp how much the long decade of rebuilding normalcy after 9/11 has already exacted a toll on our communities' finest and bravest.
Our extraordinary first responders have served us both in the recovery process at Ground Zero and since then, in the new post-9/11 climate of security and ever increasing demands of counterterrorism. It is these same officers, firefighters, police and fire chiefs, EMS workers, doctors and nurses who must respond to the most devastating natural disaster to assault this long battered community.
Congressman Peter King, Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, described a member of his community in South Seaford, a mother who had already sacrificed two sons in 9/11, who outlived their untimely deaths to battle her own cancer, only to find, while actively on chemotherapy, her own home devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Rep. King is the first politician to recognize the sequential impact and demands on citizens in this unique part of the country where so much has already been sacrificed by so many. Long an advocate of the World Trade Center First Responders and a proponent of the James Zadroga Bill, few understand the price first responders pay and the debt society owes them better than the Congressman.
While initially most patients couldn't reach my office in Garden City (which was open days after Hurricane Sandy), some did arrive. I immediately noticed who was missing: my first responder population. While I was in my comfortable office, they were out there, rebuilding our community and consoling others, even as they struggled with flood, wind and electrical damage to their own homes themselves.
Later in the week, one first responder made it in, a police officer stationed at the Rockaways. He looked haggard. He had put in a 40 hour work week and an added 52 hours of overtime as the force maintained order in the absence of electrical power.
Concerned about his exhaustion, I enquired about his work. Waiving away my questions, he first asked about my personal circumstances during Sandy and, at the time, the escalating gasoline crisis. After he was satisfied his doctor knew what to do and where to go, he agreed to continue the clinical interview, finally allowing his needs to be met.
Turning attention back to himself, he admitted that now, at age 47, after being on patrol after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, after responding for months at Ground Zero again as a patrol officer and now dealing with Sandy, he was exhausted from a decade and a half of destruction.
"I'm tired Doc," is all he could say. "Now we are stationed in the Rockaways, each officer a block apart in the pitch black, with a flashlight which we keep off until we hear footsteps approaching, only then can we turn it on to see who it is or else they know where you are." Looters had already approached him, he advised me, on the first night after the storm. I pictured my tired patient, cold, in the dark, perhaps even fearful, standing sentry to protect the abandoned homes and personal properties of the Americans he has protected and served since his youth. While there was resignation and fatigue in his voice, there wasn't a tinge of resentment.
Days later another patient, a retired NYPD officer on disability due to a serious line of duty injury, attended to finally take care of his sleep. After discussing his treatment plan, I asked how he was managing and whether as a retired officer he was called to serve.
"No doc, the force doesn't call us up out of retirement, but I have been doing what I can. I help my children, friends and neighbors, I have a generator and I am running two neighbors off of it. I helped my neighbors move debris from their lawns, I have to, I do what I can." He looked at my puzzled expression uncomprehending, as I wondered why he hadn't stopped serving the public after decades as a first responder, especially when disabled. When do these men and women finally get to be off duty?
We talked about gas shortage, explaining some of my physician colleagues were very badly impacted. "Oh no Doc, can I give you some gas? I have 100 gallons at home in my truck, to take care of my children. It's no problem, have some." He looked at me with real concern.
The offer rendered me speechless. A retired officer, disabled in the line of duty was responding to my distress. Deeply touched, I declined his kind offer.
This has been my experience in attending first responder patients in Nassau County these past two weeks. While our politicians represent the public voice and have done so extraordinarily well, it's the unseen private citizens, the first responders who may be active duty, disabled or retired that are bearing the brunt of recovery and healing from Sandy.
New York remains a place like no other. New Yorkers have rebuilt this community, shoulder to shoulder after the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, and are doing so again after the worst storm since Hurricane Katrina. While we have elected powerful and competent public officials, it is the strength of the populace which carries the community forward.
While our state's defining city, New York, remains the city that truly never sleeps, New Yorkers are the nation's first responders who never stop responding. Their courage and service defines our nation, and most acutely now, in our darkest hours.
Wherever you are, on wrecked seafronts, in flooded basements, in scorched footprints of houses once homes, I ask you, First responders, to stop, for a moment. Put down your shovels, your ladders, your torches, your pliers, while New Yorkers everywhere stand in awe of you. We, and our president, stop to salute you.
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