Taking care of the unsung heroes

September 12th, 2005 by Julie Ferguson

On the anniversary of 9/11, many of us took time to honor the victims of that sad day, including the many working heroes who gave their lives to try to rescue others. Last Friday, President Bush presented posthumous Medals of Valor to the families of 443 first-responders who were killed on the scene. But one sad story that is getting short shrift is the fact that while we honor the dead, we are ignoring the plight of many of the still-living heroes of that day who are suffering severe and incapacitating disabilities.
Few are aware that the death toll among rescue workers is still mounting. NYC EMT and volunteer firefighter Timothy Keller recently died after succumbing to respiratory problems related to his rescue efforts four years ago. And despite $7 billion in funds earmarked for victims, Keller died in poverty and financial ruin. Until weeks before his death, he had been denied both workers compensation and line of duty injury benefits.
Keller’s story is not unique:
A study by the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program, a federally funded program following 12,000 Sept. 11 responders, found last year that half of more than 1,000 examined had persistent respiratory and mental health problems. “We remain surprised and disturbed at how chronic the World Trade Center consequences are,” said Dr. Robin Herbert of Mt. Sinai Medical Center, which administers the program.
“We’re still seeing a record number of new patients as well as follow-up visits for respiratory and mental health issues,” said Dr. David Prezant, deputy chief medical officer for FDNY. Prezant said that between July of last year and June of this year, the fire department’s Bureau of Health Services has seen about 2,000 firefighters and EMTs with respiratory complaints and another 3,500 with mental health issues connected to Sept. 11 — not including those already on medical leave.

Fighting for benefits
Many other 9/11 rescue workers are suffering similar ailments and are having trouble securing workers compensation or disability payments.
A group of Ground Zero recovery workers made a trip down to Washington, D.C., last week to lobby Congress about the $125 million that is slated to be taken away from the New York Workers’ Compensation Fund. The money had been earmarked for Sept. 11 claims, and workers blame the state for dragging its feet in distributing the money.
The funds are still being debated as part of the 2006 federal budget – a move which angers and surprises many Sept. 11 responders. “This is something I can’t comprehend as a person of faith,” said Joann Hale, a member of the United Church of Christ – one of the denominations that has actively funded and participated in the Sept. 11 recovery.
“It’s amazing that these were the people who were risking their lives trying to save others and keep the area safe – just trying to help their fellow person. I don’t quite understand why they have to be penalized for that.”

Other rescue workers, other risks
Today in New Orleans, we may have a similar situation brewing. Rescue workers are saving lives and recovering bodies while working in a toxic environment with dangers that are not yet fully documented. These workers risk their lives while giving little thought to the potential longterm effects on their own health. Shouldn’t it be part of our public trust that we care for our rescue workers if they suffer long term debilitation related to their efforts? We should do better by our heroes than posthumous medals.