We owe an extraordinary debt to the heroes of September 11, and to their brothers and sisters who survived that day but still bear the physical and mental health effects, as well as the scars and wounds of sorrow and loss. The World Trade Center Health Program is part of how we honor that debt.
Through the federally-mandated WTC Health Program, September 11 responders and volunteers involved in the rescue, recovery, and cleanup efforts in the days, weeks, and months after September 11, receive medical monitoring and treatment for health conditions related to their WTC exposures. More than 80,000 individuals currently are enrolled nationwide, with more than 22,000 enrolled in the WTC Health Program Clinical Center of Excellence at Mount Sinai, the clinical core of the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health. Robert O. Wright, MD, MPH, serves as department chair.
Ghosts of Memory
Much of my research deals with memory. Yet, after more than 20 years of work, the concept of what I am studying is still surprisingly elusive. Memory is a very curious concept. It has no physical presence, we cannot define its form, nor its size or location, yet it is part of everything we do; and everything we see, hear, and touch. We are constantly making new memories and revising or losing old memories. Without memory, we could not exist because we could never learn to hunt, forage, run, work, or love. We take for granted the role memory plays in our routines and daily lives. The route we take to work each morning is often so ingrained that it becomes a reflex. We think, talk, or even sing along with the radio as we travel all the while never missing a turn. We can turn off our brains (or at least think we are turning them off) and sing all the words to “Here Comes the Sun” as we cook or iron a shirt without burning down the house. We can forget to buy milk at the store, even though we were reminded three times to do so, and milk was even the primary reason for going to the store in the first place; yet, all we came home with was chips, salsa and beer (because while we were at the store we suddenly remembered the big game was coming Saturday).
We don’t understand how memory works or even how it can exist inside. We believe it must be a set of amazing chemical reactions that our neurons create, organize, and store based on our senses. We also do not understand how we retrieve memories that have been stored or how best to bring them back during a chemistry exam. Even our own sense of self is a form of memory; if we lost our ability to remember, we would lose ourselves. Without memory, whether or not we ever existed at all, would be a question for philosophers.
“Our continued, critical life-saving care keeps alive the memory of those we lost and honors the courageous responders and survivors with compassion and community. Mount Sinai is incredibly privileged to provide that care, and while we can never completely heal the scars of that day, we can provide comfort.”Dr. Robert Wright
Ghosts are memories, and very often, our memories are our ghosts. They haunt us and ask us to relive moments, sometimes very painful moments. As a child, I recall adults saying that they all remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated. I couldn’t relate to that concept as I was only two months old when he was killed. I only remember the conversations about it years later. There was no seminal event for my generation that broke through the day-to-day building blocks of memory formation that would permanently burn into my personal consciousness. Not until September 11, 2001.
I remember everything about that terrible day—from the moment I first heard what was happening to the end of day listening to fighter jets flying above my house. I was still in my thirties, and the firefighters, police and EMRs who ran into those buildings were from my generation. Many, if not most, of those who died were as well. They are the ghosts who haunt our city and our country. We must not forget them. These ghosts remind us that we owe a debt to their brothers and sisters who survived that day, but still bear the scars and wounds of physical damage, but also of sorrow and loss.
Caring for the responders who are still with us today is part of how we honor our debt to those we have lost—both those individuals who died on that fateful day and those who have succumbed to WTC-related health conditions in the following twenty years. Our continued, critical life-saving care keeps alive the memory of those we lost and honors the courageous responders and survivors with compassion and community. Mount Sinai is incredibly privileged to provide that care, and while we can never completely heal the scars of that day, we can provide comfort. As we mark the 20th anniversary of September 11, we should all pause to remember that despite our own hardships, we are the lucky ones, and that those who responded, those who were in the planes and buildings must remain alive through our memory.