I Was Working In a NYC Hospital on 9/11
On that clear blue day in September, I was working at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital. I prepared for chaos, but none came. People either escaped or they didn’t.
Like any Tuesday, that particular morning was the day the department of pediatrics (where I did my residency) held its weekly grand rounds, a teaching conference to which everybody is invited. While showing up was technically required for residents, that didn’t always pan out in reality. But that week one of my favorite attending doctors, a well-liked hematologist, was talking about her work with stem cells, and I made a point of showing up.
I cannot say I remember anything that was said during that hour.
As I was leaving, I bumped into one of the other residents in my class coming in for the day. She asked if I’d heard the news—a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I had not.
What I pictured when I heard this was a small, probably private plane that, due to some catastrophic error, had hit the skyscraper. While obviously terrible, it didn’t in that moment seem likely it would have any real impact on the rest of my day.
That month I was the senior resident covering the inpatient pediatrics service at Bellevue Hospital, in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood. With what I’d just learned in mind, it seemed prudent to swing by the emergency department (ED)—of which the hospital had a separate, pediatric-only side—just to make sure they didn’t need any extra help. I told the rest of the residents and medical students to go on up to the floor, and I’d join them presently.
As I’ve seen mentioned so often in accounts of that day in New York it seems almost obligatory to note, it was an absolutely gorgeous late summer morning. The perfect blue of the sky stands out in my memory as I took the short walk outside from the lecture hall to the ED.
What I encountered when I walked through the door was complete pandemonium. Every single physician I knew who worked in the department—far more than could possibly have been scheduled to work—was present, part of a frenzied blur of activity. People were pulling plastic protective gowns on over their clothing as they raced in frantic preparation.
It had not been a small plane that hit the tower, I found out. It had been a passenger jet airliner.
Yes, I was told, I should stay. As many people as could be spared were needed to handle the massive number of casualties that presumably would be arriving very shortly.
I called up to the floor. I told them I would not be joining them after all, and that every patient who could be safely discharged should be sent home immediately. We imagined that every bed would be required.
I remember where I was standing in one of the trauma bays when more of the day’s horrible news began to arrive. The second plane striking the second tower. The Pentagon. Vague reports of many other planes and many other targets.
I do not, however, remember with any clarity exactly when I learned that one of the towers had fallen.
What I will never forget, however, was the vertiginous feeling that came when the terrible reality began to sink it. The effort it took to stay focused on being ready for the work that was sure to begin at any minute. The far-away look I saw in others’ eyes as they paused to consider people they knew who worked or commuted in or around the Twin Towers.
I was lucky in that regard. My only personal connection to the World Trade Center was my parents’ occasional visits, when they would stay in a hotel near there because they often found a nice room at a good price. It used to drive me crazy, because I lived on the Upper West Side back then and it took forever to travel down to meet them. But they were not in town, and so I had no reason to fear the loss of anyone I loved.
(Though I did not know him then, I came to learn that those hours were terrible for my future husband in a totally different way. His brother and his brother’s partner were both flight attendants out of Newark at the time, and he did not learn until that night that his brother was safe, and not until the next day about his partner.)
There in that trauma bay I waited, as did all those other doctors and nurses. I don’t recall a single patient arriving during that time.
At some point there came a call for volunteers to head to the emergency department at nearby NYU Medical Center, the other hospital through which our residents rotated. The ED there was not always staffed with pediatricians, and if pediatric casualties might arrive there then it made sense for some of us to make our way the few blocks north to be ready to receive them. I offered to go, along with another couple of senior residents.
Running through the tangle of hallways toward the exit, we encountered a huge knot of reporters shouting questions at a public official. It seemed a kind of command center had been set up, which made sense given Bellevue’s flagship role in the City’s public hospital network. But we had to get through the crowd.
“We need,” I panted, “to go that way,” pointing to the corridor on the other side of the shouting mass. And without a word of protest, that block of New York reporters—who were likely in the most pressured moments of their careers to date—parted like the Red Sea and let us run through. It’s another image I’ll never forget.
Breathless, we arrived to see the same kind of abstracted blur of queasy preparation in the NYU emergency department. We found a spot for ourselves and tried to gather what seemed a good set of child-sized IV catheters and breathing tubes. And then we waited for whatever the awful day would bring.
As time passed, bits of information or rumor floated through the room. The first round of ambulances had finally managed to make it through the chaos into the Financial District. The first round of ambulances were finally leaving the area and making their way to hospitals. Any minute the patients would be arriving and our work would begin. So we heard.
But they never did.
After a while, it became apparent that we were simply occupying space. In the time I spent in that bustling room, the only patient I saw brought in was a woman who looked like a crossing guard, suffering from a massive panic attack. Eventually I told the ED staff to call up to the pediatric floor if any children were brought in, and went up to our conference room there to wait.
And there I sat, watching the horror mere miles away unfold on the television screen like everyone else in the country. I could see FDR Drive below through the window, eerily devoid of traffic except for the occasional official vehicle or two screaming downtown every few minutes. I talked with another resident about the war this was certain to trigger, and she cried thinking about her husband, who was in the reserves for one of the armed forces.
Eventually it became apparent that there was no point in lingering at NYU. No call was likely to be coming. No deluge of patients had arrived, and if there were any pediatric trauma cases they would most likely be routed to Bellevue first. And so I walked back.
Another detail lost to me now is when it was determined that I would stay there overnight. Living as I did on the other side of Manhattan and far uptown from Bellevue’s location, with transportation within the city anyone’s guess at that point, it made as much sense to stay as go. So I chose to stay.
The only patient I saw the whole night was a firefighter from a squad in Long Island, one of many that had traveled into the City to help. We received him in the pediatric ED on overflow from the main department, full of similar patients being treated for smoke inhalation or particle debris in the eyes. The acrid smell that clung to the man was powerful as I leaned over to wash out his eyes.
Eventually other firefighters from his department found him on the pediatric side after searching for him among the adults. Never in my life will I see a more relieved group of grown men than them that moment they located him, their palpable joy in discovering him safe thinly veiled beneath gruff bravado. They all smelled like creosote.
The next morning I headed home. In the days to come, the same smell of creosote would drift its way to my neighborhood.
The massive wave of casualties we were braced for never arrived at our hospital. I came to learn that, with a few exceptions, people either made it from the World Trade Center with relatively minor injuries, or they simply didn’t make it out at all.
Several days later, our department gathered the residents together to discuss how we were handling the tragedy. We all said the same thing—all of us were yearning to do something with the resources we had to help, to be of any sort of service during this time of unspeakable trauma to the city. And we were left with nothing to do at all.
I was friendly with many of the emergency medicine residents from Bellevue at that time. Many of them were sent to Ground Zero in a search for survivors, for anyone they could treat. They told me they felt the same profound impotence searching among the rubble, the only difference being that their feelings of powerlessness were experienced within buildings that threatened to collapse around them at any minute.
Following the attacks, the profile of the city changed. The most obvious was the loss of the Twin Towers. A denizen of uptown, anytime I ventured downtown the very first thing I had always done when I emerged from the subway was find them so I could at least tell which direction was south. Their loss was literally disorienting.
There were other changes to the landscape around me. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for New York City is within the compound of buildings between Bellevue and NYU Med, and in the weeks to come a tent city of sorts would spring up around it. I would look down during nights on call and see the constantly-illuminated procession of trucks bringing remains for forensic analysis. I lost track of how many months they were there, but however long it was the lights shining on the ceaseless work never turned off.
The other new sight was the blanket of fliers that extended from the ground to a little over my head, starting a couple of blocks from the hospital entrance and covering every wall and pillar leading up to it. Each displayed the name and picture of someone missing, put there by people desperate to find loved ones. People smiled out from engagement or wedding photos. Identifying scars or tattoos were described. Contact numbers were listed for friends and family.
Every day I walked past them, for weeks and weeks. I learned a few names I saw repeated over time. When a database of all that day’s victims was finally available online, I found those names among them. Each year when the day returns I remember them specifically.
Though I moved away from New York City years ago, on some level it will always feel like home. I knew within minutes of arriving on my first visit that I wanted to live there, and I ranked residency programs nowhere but in New York for the sake of doing so. I love no place in America more than there.
One didn’t need to be a New Yorker on September 11 to love the city, however. I have no doubt that people in Des Moines and Cheyenne and Anchorage reeled in horror and sorrow just the same as people in Manhattan. Even people who wouldn’t know Queens from a hole in the wall felt solidarity with those who had been directly attacked and has their own memories of that day.
Mine is of standing in an emergency department, trying to keep my breath steady as I waited for people I might help to arrive. And of eventually realizing to my sorrow that they never would.