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Home > News & Events > LA Times: At N.Y. Downtown Hospital, 9/11 Is Still Raw - 8/28/06

LA Times: At N.Y. Downtown Hospital, 9/11 Is Still Raw - 8/28/06

By Walter Hamilton
Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Dr. Warren Licht was giving his patient a routine physical exam last week when she asked the questions that still tear at him five years later.

"Was this the hospital closest to ground zero?" the young woman asked. "What was it like that day? Were you here?"

Licht — the 40-year-old chief medical officer of New York Downtown Hospital, which is a few blocks from the World Trade Center site — gingerly deflected the question.

What he didn't say was why. If he had, Licht would have told the woman that his job constantly reminds him of Sept. 11 — often in unguarded moments — and that his feelings remain so raw that it's hard to stay composed.

"It would be pretty embarrassing to be a doctor with tears running down his eyes in response to a patient's innocent question," Licht said.

Five years after Sept. 11, the psychological wounds suffered that day have receded for many New Yorkers. But for Licht and his colleagues, the memory is ever-present and the psychic trauma is rekindled regularly.

That's due largely to the daily rhythms of the job, such as running disaster-preparedness drills and treating local residents who lost family members that day.

The hospital also is finishing a $25-million emergency-room expansion with terrorismrelated features, such as decontamination showers.

"Most people see [Sept. 11] as a terrible event that happened and they have moved on from it," said Dr. Bruce Logan, the hospital's chief executive. But "it's fresh in our minds all the time. We address it every day."

Their emotions are frayed further by the staff's belief that the public doesn't understand what they went through that day.

The common perception is that New York City hospitals geared up for an onslaught of patients that never materialized because of the high death count.

But New York Downtown Hospital was inundated, initially with patients who were near the impact zone of the two planes and who were rescued before the buildings collapsed, and later with people suffering from smoke inhalation or debris in their eyes.

Because TV news vans couldn't reach Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, they congregated at hospitals farther north that had few patients.

Dr. Antonio Dajer, the interim ER chief, recently mentioned his job to an acquaintance.

"The first thing out of her mouth was, 'Oh, that must have been hard not having any patients,' " Dajer said. "It's a touchy thing because you can't say, 'Well, let me tell you my story.' You don't want to be melodramatic about it."

New York Downtown Hospital has a counselor for staffers who want to discuss Sept. 11, but few do.

"I don't talk about it that much because we live it every day," said Arlene Eastman, the ER nurse manager.

In many ways, Eastman said, it's reassuring to work in the ER and see the terrorism-related preparations.

But, she added, "now that we're building this emergency center, I'm even more afraid because I don't know what's going to come through the door."

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