Dr. Judy Su, a primary care physician, still cares for the Chinese deliveryman who worked in Lower Manhattan during 9/11. She treats his asthma-like symptoms that went ignored for too long because he couldn't afford to miss work to visit a doctor.
Dr. Sue Varma, a psychiatrist, treats the man who had flashbacks of children dropping their book bags and of the people who ran for shelter into the food kiosk he owned near the World Trade Center, which he lost on 9/11.
Eight years after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Drs. Su and Varma are among 13 HHC doctors who work at WTC Environmental Health Center and continue to see the long-term medical and mental health problems New Yorkers face as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attack or its aftermath. The program, under the medical direction of Dr. Joan Reibman, and first started at Bellevue Hospital, is funded by the City of New York, and more recently, by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency operated by the Centers for Disease Control.
The WTC Center operates from three locations, at Bellevue Hospital and Gouverneur Healthcare Services in Manhattan, and Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. The services are provided at no out of pocket cost and the hours of operation include early evening visits, so people don't have to miss work. Since it opened in 2006, the multi-disciplinary healthcare team has treated over 4,000 people. Nearly 1,300 new patients sought treatment in the last year and a half.
“Lots of people had symptoms but didn't make the connection. Or they had mild symptoms for a long time that they ignored, until they became worse,” explains Dr. Su, who practices at the Gouverneur site of the WTC Environmental Health Center.
Dr. Varma, who is the mental health director at the Bellevue Hospital site, said identifying and treating patients' mental health problems can be more difficult than treating medical ones because of shame and the stigma of mental illness.
"I continue to see patients traumatized by 9/11from all walks of life, from lawyers on Wall Street to undocumented immigrants and people in their 20's to their 70's. But their symptoms are similar. They feel isolated, irritable, numb and depressed. They're not themselves anymore. Many lost their jobs or businesses, have financial problems and family issues. They all say '9/11 changed my life,'" says Dr. Varma.
The WTC Environmental Health Center offers individual, group and couples therapy as well as medical care. Doctors who provide the mental health services say treatment goals are developed with a focus on building trust and safety, helping patients maintain a daily routine, rebuilding interpersonal skills and returning to normalcy.
“Our counselors tell patients and families that something big did happen to them and they are not alone. And our patients believe having all the trauma specialists who understand what happened in one place helps them to heal,” added Dr. Varma.
For medical or mental health problems that may be related to 9/11, New Yorkers can contact the HHC WTC Environmental Health Center by calling 311 or 877-982-0107 to make an appointment.