9/11 responders are now in need of help


January 23, 2006

'People keep saying it's all in our heads, but you know what, we're dropping dead," Bonnie Giebfried told me.

A former emergency medical technician, Giebfried was healthy and athletic when her ambulance responded to the World Trade Center attacks more than four years ago. But after spending five hours at the site and being buried twice by falling debris, her life changed dramatically.

She used to play on three softball teams and a paddleball team. Now she suffers from full-blown asthma, a persistent cough, a condition that causes stomach acid to back up into her throat and has damaged her vocal cords, damage to her left side from the neck to the knee, nerve damage, and injuries to her left thumb, wrist, elbow and shoulder. She recently recovered from her third bout with pneumonia, has been hospitalized three times, and has made repeated trips to emergency rooms.

So she wasn't surprised by recent news reports that 23 former Ground Zero responders have died from diseases related to their exposure to toxic chemicals there, and that thousands more are sick and suffering. While some responders are suing the government, Giebfried and others want the federal government to pay for medical treatment for the sick responders, many of whom can no longer work and have no health insurance.

Mount Sinai Medical Center has done medical screenings for more than 15,000 World Trade Center responders under a federally funded program that will last until 2009. The medical center has also treated 1,600 responders through a program primarily paid for by the Red Cross. But there's a three-month waiting list and it's funded only for another year and a half.

Meanwhile, doctors at Mount Sinai say they're seeing people who are chronically ill and not getting better. And because they were exposed to numerous carcinogens, many more could get sick over time and some may develop cancer.

"There's a potentially looming time bomb of what we may see down the road," says Dr. Robin Herbert, director of the World Trade Center Health Effects Treatment Program at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Giebfried hasn't worked since April 2004. It took more than two years for the state's workers' compensation program, which is funded by private employers, to agree to pay some of her medical bills. After her job insurance ran out, she was without coverage for a year until the Red Cross picked up her $440 monthly premium under the COBRA program, and that coverage will end in March. Meanwhile, she has more than $40,000 in unpaid medical bills and is living off a federal disability check and a small stipend from workers' compensation.

Her story is similar to the ones I heard from other responders. They talked about going from good health to having a vast array of ailments for which they take up to two dozen medications. They talked about losing the ability to work, about burying friends, and about fearing that, having been exposed to the infamous "green smoke" at Ground Zero, they will only get sicker over time. They also talked about fighting with workers' compensation officials for their benefits, and about their amazement that the federal government has done nothing to help them with their medical needs.

John Feal, 39, a former demolition supervisor, worked six days removing debris at Ground Zero before his left foot was crushed by a steel beam. He's since had half his foot amputated, battled gangrene and organ shutdown, and has had more than a dozen surgeries on both feet. Every time he takes a pre-operative breathing test, he fails it. He thinks programs like the one at Mount Sinai are great, but knows the hospital can't handle the demand.

"We went [to Ground Zero] without any prejudice, without thinking about our lives," Feal said. "Now while we're suffering and dying slowly - we are literally decaying - these people have just turned their backs."

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) is outraged that to date, "not one dime of federal money" has gone for the treatment of sick and injured responders. She and other members of New York's congressional delegation are pushing Congress to restore $125 million that was cut from the federal budget to help states pay workers' compensation claims related to Sept. 11 and to pay for treatment programs like Mount Sinai's. The measure passed the House and the Senate is expected to follow suit.

The health problems of the responders are shaping up to be the next big national scandal. They deserve to be treated better, not simply ignored.

Sheryl McCarthy can be reached at mccart731@aol.com.