Health care workers are at increased risk of getting the new coronavirus. In New York, according to a report by Business Insider, many providers with symptoms are not tested, but asked to stay at home for just seven days before returning to work. In some cases, when a provider has positive results but remains asymptomatic, they have been asked to continue working because our hospitals are already understaffed and operating at their maximum capacity. As the rest of the country moves and rebuilds, a new threat of post-traumatic stress disorder confronts workers and their families, who could rage for years.
My father was a sergeant in the NYPD emergency services unit for almost nine months spent at Ground Zero. What started as a rescue mission in search of survivors quickly turned into a recovery of human remains. At 14, I had trouble understanding what he was still doing there in February 2002. We hardly saw him in my first year of high school. He would go home, take off his dusty Carhartt bodysuit from the World Trade Center, throw it on the basement stairs to wash and sleep for a few hours before waking up for another shift. When I asked him what he was looking for at Ground Zero, he just replied, “Thumb.”
Nearly 20 years separate this pandemic from the September 11 attacks in New York. At the time of this writing, the total number of positive Covid-19 cases in New York State was 10.5% of those worldwide. Again, we are an epicenter of trauma and death with 8.7% of pandemic deaths in our state alone.
Every night we open our windows and stand on verandas to encourage and congratulate our intervening heroes – as they do – by sacrificing their own well-being and safety to help others. Like my father and other Ground Zero first responders, we expected doctors and nurses to do their job without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). My dad was told that he didn’t need a proper mask because the air was breathable.
And the similarities don’t end there.
Knocking on our balconies for our heroes is not enough. While useful, meals, donations, or stimulus packages are not. I know this intimately because more and more of my father’s old work colleagues die each year as a direct result of their exposure to Ground Zero. Just ask John Feal, a September 11 first responder, who has been to Congress several times to lobby for financial coverage for respondents who die from cancers related to Ground Zero. Stakeholder families may not lose their loved one because of the virus, but what they may not realize – as we have not done – is that you may lose some to them. job.
We celebrate our heroes but we quickly expect them to resume their normal lives after going through a national crisis. My father left a war zone in the heart of our city and returned home with his family and his work at the NYPD in the emergency department. He was chronically exhausted, angry, hyper alert, on an inhaler and desperately needed more support than we could provide. Eight years after September 11, my parents ended their 25-year marriage.
Men and women working in hospitals, ambulances and caring for coveted patients will also have to return to work – return to the site of their most traumatic professional moments – where young and old patients, without a single family member, are allowed alongside them, died of acute respiratory failure. The endless phone calls they made to families when their loved ones died will deprive them of sleep long after a vaccine has neutralized our collective fear. As a society, when the immediate threat is over, we will always expect responders to continue to rescue those who enter the emergency doors. But who will take care of them or their families at the end of the pandemic? If we have learned anything in the past few weeks, our economy is only as successful as the health of the people who work to maintain it.
In the months following this tragedy, we will need to look for signs of PTSD in those on the front lines. My father didn’t have to see a mental health counselor afterwards. Many police like him said that stigma within the department kept him from seeking help for years. If you find yourself face to face with a loved one who has changed at work last month, take this as a sign of mobilization. We must support our heroes by putting systems in place, ensuring they have affordable and timely access to mental health counseling, addiction and alcohol treatment, and the time it takes to heal. If we want stakeholders to continue their essential tasks and accomplish them well, we must pay tribute to them in a tangible and concrete way.
On Sunday, during the CBS “60 minutes”, Dr. Yuval Neria – director of trauma and PTSD at the New York State Psychiatric Institute – warned of a possible “second pandemic”, one concerning mental health. After September 11, about one to five percent of New Yorkers have developed a PSTD, according to Neria. Now think of everyone you know who is currently working in essential jobs outside of their homes to fight this disease. With our country facing a severe recession, it is unlikely that a budget will be set aside for their health overnight.
In the late evening at Ground Zero, first responders were haunted by the sound of Personal Safety Alert (PASS) alarms – a device used to alert others that a firefighter is still and needs help . For this generation of responders, it may be blue code calls, indicating that a patient’s heart has stopped, or their cries of muffling for the family in their last moments. We can only truly thank our heroes if we don’t forget them in their next hours of need.