Although it’s been 11 years since September 11, the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center continues to enroll hundreds of new patients with health problems related to the terrorist attacks – people like Alicia Rivera, who still vividly recalls the sound the first tower made before it came crashing down. “I can still remember how the building cracked before it fell. That cracking sound – you never forget it. It was such a scary experience.”
Rivera had already left the Deutsche Bank building where she worked, across the street from the World Trade Center, and was making her way south to Battery Park when the first tower fell. The dust cloud caught her and covered her from head to toe in debris. In the months after 9/11, Rivera went back to her job and back to her life. But over the years she developed allergies, postnasal drip, severe heartburn and persistent headaches. At work she found it harder and harder to concentrate. Three years ago, she lost her job.
Recently, a relative remarked that her symptoms sounded like they were related to her experience on 9/11, and told her about the WTC Environmental Health Center. In January Rivera became a patient, one of 630 new patients enrolled since September of last year.
Since its inception in 2005, the WTC center has seen almost 6,500 patients with physical and mental health problems related to 9/11. One of three WTC Centers of Excellence in the city, it is the only one dedicated to treating members of the community rather than first responders and the only program that treats children. The patients are residents, students, workers, passersby and those who helped in the cleanup.
The main physical problems of WTC health center patients include shortness of breath, cough, wheezing, chest tightness, nasal and sinus congestion, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The main mental health problems are depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Although she had heard of WTC-related illnesses, Rivera said, she associated them with first responders – firefighters, police officers and Emergency Medical Technicians – not civilians like herself. “I was surprised to hear I wasn’t the only one,” said Rivera, 45, who is married and has three sons.
Now she is being treated for respiratory problems and GERD, and plans to join a support group.
“As time has passed, it’s become clear that people suffering from the health effects of 9/11 will need ongoing care,” said Dr. Joan Reibman, Medical Director of the WTC center. “Our program has evolved from an acute treatment program to a chronic disease management program.”
Depending on their needs, patients are treated with medication, individual and group therapy, substance abuse treatment programs, and therapeutic arts. The center operates at three HHC facilities: Bellevue Hospital and Gouverneur Health in Manhattan, and Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens.
“It’s important for people to know that, even 11 years later, if they lived there or worked there, they still deserve care,” said Terry Miles, Executive Director of the WTC center. This year’s 9/11 campaign will use subway and bus shelter advertising to reach out to ethnic communities that appear to be under-represented among patients who have enrolled recently, he said.
Under the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, effective July 1, 2011, the WTC center moved from a grant-based program paid for with city and federal money, to one that has more long-term funding, with federal dollars available through a combination of contracts and a fee-for-service system for the next five years, with a possible sixth year if money remains. HHC is expected to receive approximately $10 million annually. Patients can get treatment regardless of their insurance status, immigration status or ability to pay. There is no out-of-pocket cost for treatment or medications. The law also provides money for research, and WTC center doctors are studying lung function changes in the WTC patient population over time.
“I’m relieved that there’s actually a place where I can go and get treatment,” Rivera said. “I feel like I’m really taking care of my health now.”
To determine whether you are eligible and to enroll in the program, call toll free at 1-888-WTC-HP4U (1-888-982-4748) or visit www.cdc.gov/wtc.