|Dr. Joan Reibman|
Dr. Joan Reibman is the Medical Director of the HHC World Trade Center Environmental Health Center at Bellevue Hospital. Dr. Reibman was head of the Bellevue Asthma Clinic and experienced in treating patients with respiratory problems when the attacks of September 11 occurred. Soon afterward, she began treating patients and conducting studies on the health impact of 9/11.
Q. Where were you on September 11, 2001?
A. I lived across town from Bellevue Hospital and I was going across town on 23rd Street in a taxi and I was late. And the driver said, “The World Trade Center towers were hit by an airplane!” And it took a while for that to really seep in. But you could see the flames out of the World Trade Center towers. And since I had been here the first time the World Trade Center was bombed, in 1993, I knew that Bellevue would be one of the trauma centers.
So I went to Bellevue and we cleared out the hospital to get ready for trauma patients. I had young kids who were in school nearby and they managed somehow to make their way to my office, and someone else’s teenager took care of them. Then I spent the rest of the day with the other doctors here waiting for people. There were a few patients who came into the emergency room, but not the large numbers we were expecting. We just couldn’t understand why nobody was coming.
Q. When did you realize the extent of the health problems created by 9/11?
A. I spoke on a panel at Pace University about a month after the event, where members of the community asked what would be the health effects of their exposure on 9/11. The auditorium at Pace was packed with people, packed. They were from all over, from the responder groups to the local residents to people who were working downtown. People had these paper masks dangling off their necks. And people were coughing non-stop. And all I could honestly say at the time was that we didn’t know what the effects would be.
But we were getting a few indications. Within a few weeks of 9/11 we started seeing people in the asthma clinic with upper respiratory symptoms – congestion and irritation in the nose and sinuses. Within the first two weeks we had one firefighter who was very sick in the intensive care unit with lung disease. He recovered.
Q. When did you begin your study?
A. In late 2001 we began a study, in collaboration with the New York State Department of Health, to ask the question: Were there going to be new respiratory symptoms in people who lived in Lower Manhattan? This was a very intense, hands-on project. I spent night after night at meetings of community groups, tenants associations, and community boards. I went to local street fairs and all kinds of events to devise this project.
We designed the studies with the community and then got the community involved to get people to participate. We had a little portable spirometer to measure people’s breath and lung function and we would set up in a community room or in the gym and have people do the questionnaires and then blow into the spirometer right there.
We completed the study about a year and a half after the event. We published that there was increase in both upper and lower respiratory symptoms in Lower Manhattan residents compared to residents in Upper Manhattan and that the increase in symptoms was associated with exposure to dust and fumes from the World Trade Center. There was also an increase in use of medications and doctor visits.
Q. Did you think that this would become your life’s work?
A. No! I’m an asthma doctor. I still run the Asthma Clinic. But we are still getting new patients with symptoms related to 9/11. Many times we get patients who have gone from doctor to doctor and can’t figure out what’s going on and they come to us. They’re very relieved to say, “Oh I’m not the only one with this. There’s other people who have this and you know how to evaluate it and treat it.”