A New Standard of Healthcare
On September 11, 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center killed 2,763 people - the most devastating attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor. Numerous area hospitals, including Stony Brook Medicine, prepared to treat those wounded and critically injured. They stood at the ready, only to eventually realize no one was coming: city hospitals were able to handle the relatively few survivors.
In the following days, weeks, and months, more than 91,000 people responded to the WTC sites, coming to search for survivors, recover remains, and then participate in the massive cleanup effort. There existed a full spectrum of human experience: from fire rescue, law enforcement, and military, to iron and construction workers, demolition experts, mental health professionals, and other civilians who simply wanted to help in any way possible. Borne most memorably in the bucket brigade that formed on the still burning mountain of debris just hours after the buildings collapsed, the recovery work would officially continue until May 2002 in the most inhospitable conditions: heat, threat of collapsing buildings, and an ever-present exposure to the poisonous cloud in the air. This level of contact with a mixture of pulverized silica, asbestos, lead, fibrous glass, hydrochloric acid, pesticides, and much more was unprecedented. In the first hours and days, the responders had little more than painters’ masks, if that, and worked tirelessly in feet of ash and debris while more swirled in the air around them. Even as better safety equipment became available, its use was not routinely enforced. The reality remained that responders in lower Manhattan and its surrounding areas were working, eating, resting, and breathing in a toxic environment with grossly inadequate safeguards for their personal health. Even while medical and environmental experts could not predict the long-term health impact of the event and its aftermath, it was clear that there was an immediate need to offer healthcare to these dedicated individuals, thousands of whom were Long Islanders .
Stony Brook University Hospital (and other centers in Occupational Medicine) joined forces with labor unions, local politicians, New York City officials, the federal government, the Red Cross, and others to secure the initial funds needed to establish a medical program that could measure the health impacts of 9/11 on the responders. Just months after 9/11, our center opened its doors to WTC responders, starting down a road that would lead to innovations in program member care and research and a new standard in post-disaster care. We began by offering free medical screenings for local 9/11 responders as part of the WTC Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program. Over many years of diligent work and advocacy, this health monitoring program grew into part of a complex monitoring and treatment program—now known as the WTC Health Program—a consortium of clinical centers supported by federal funding and administered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). As the program’s Long Island Clinical Center of Excellence- and cornerstone of our Stony Brook WTC Health and Wellness Program- we’re humbled to serve more than 12,000 responders in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Our model of care has continuously evolved since that first day in 2001. With each day that passes, we strive to provide compassionate and expert care, empower our program members in their own health (with a new focus on prevention and early detection), and give back to a community that has given so much to us, and for us.
Soon after the first monitoring assessments were completed, it became clear that a specialized treatment program was needed for these 9/11 responders: something that would have to be built from the ground up. What seemed obvious to many—that 9/11 responders now needed quality healthcare—was not universally embraced. Finding funding and support has been critical at both the local and national levels, and is an ongoing battle. In 2004, NIOSH awarded a grant for our Center’s clinic to function as a Clinical Center of the WTC Medical Monitoring Program. In 2005, the American Red Cross issued another grant that would allow the Center to provide mental health services to responders. In 2009, the bill for the James C. Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was formally introduced into Congress, and the rallying cries intensified—from grassroots organizers such as the Fealgood Foundation and 9/11 Health Watch; labor organizations including the Long Island Federation of Labor and the Nassau/ Suffolk Building Council; George Bloom and John Durso; the late Bill Lindsay, David Parkinson, and Jack Kennedy; and politicians alike. The Zadroga Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011, providing for the first time direct federal funding for the WTC Health Program, which is now the cornerstone of our Center. Representatives from Congress, including Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler, Steve Israel, and Peter King, and Senators Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Charles Schumer have been instrumental in pushing forward this and other legislation and giving a voice to responders, especially as their health needs increase with each passing year.
The Zadroga Act and the WTC Health Program
With the implementation of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act in 2011, the national WTC Health Program was established. Administered by NIOSH and funded by the federal government and New York City, the program provides screenings, annual monitoring exams, and medical treatments for 9/11-related health conditions or conditions exacerbated by WTC exposure at no cost to program members. The Act also reopened the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (originally closed in 2003), allowing those who got sick after 2003 to file for compensation. Funding for this program that , which serves more than 112,000 responders and survivors in all 50 states (as of July 2021),through five clinical centers of excellence and a nationwide provider network (NPN), is up for renewal in 2022.
Our Center Today
Our once small clinic providing limited health monitoring services for a few hundred has prospered into a now vibrant center- monitoring and treating >12,000 WTC responders. Our services now span across two clinical sites on Long Island; the main one being a state-of -the-art expanded space in Commack. We are honored yet humbled by the sense of community we continue to foster among 9/11 responders, their families, and our staff.
We have sealed our trail-blazing reputation for the WTC Health Program, Stony Brook University, and greater responder community. This results from our centralized, integrated care model driven by multi-disciplinary medical expertise, a strong member engagement and support community, preferred care coordination and member management structure, as well as cohort maintenance and data continuity capabilities. Much of our knowledge on how to best care for Program members results from a combination of our many years of experience, and our unique integrative clinical research model. This combination ensures that research-based protocols best address the unique health issues faced by the responders we support. Dr. Luft’s ongoing collaboration with his renowned team of experts- within and beyond Stony Brook University- yields the benefits of WTC-tested protocols, a wealth of data, and a better understanding of burdens associated with physical and mental health symptoms, disease progression, and treatment regimen successes in our WTC responder population. Over 60 peer-reviewed publications on these subjects have been published by Dr. Luft’s team over the past 10 years.