One 9/11 responder has a message to his fellow responders: seek care and enroll in the WTC Health Program

Gary Smiley FDNY Hazmat Paramedic

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Today’s news is filled with reports of 9/11-related illness deaths, from uniformed responders who helped with the rescue and recovery to cleanup workers who decontaminated surrounding buildings to those who simply got caught in the dust cloud, the lingering impact of 9/11 is well known 16 years after the disaster. What is often left out of this narrative is that help is available to responders and survivors, many of whom are suffering from chronic, debilitating, and too frequently fatal illnesses. Responders are coming forth with their stories in the hope of spreading public awareness that healthcare along with compensation is available to this community who sacrificed their health to ensure the city’s recovery. Calling the program a god-send, these responders urge their fellow comrades to take action and enroll in the WTC Health Program. This program provides specialized monitoring and treatment for a population suffering from over a 100 different illnesses related to their exposure of WTC-derived contaminants during their response and recovery work. These illnesses include aerodigestive tract disorders, mental health conditions such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, and over a 50 different types of cancers. Research connecting exposure to new illnesses is ongoing and new conditions are frequently added to the list. With over 7,000 responders and survivors certified for a 9/11-related cancer in the program, responders look to inform others that enrollment is open and potentially life-saving screening is available.

“I try to help the guys who are sicker than me”, says Gary Smiley, a hazardous material paramedic with the New York City Fire Department during 9/11. Smiley is one of the responders enrolled in the WTC Health Program sharing his story so that others can connect to the care they deserve. Smiley responded to 9/11 on the day of the WTC collapse, rushing to the scene after the first plane hit and setting up a triage station for those coming out of the buildings injured. Smiley was blown underneath an ambulance after the second tower collapsed and even though he sustained serious injuries, stayed on the site that day to help find victims in the debris. Shortly after, he spent a week in the hospital, recovering from crush syndrome from being trapped under the rubble. Despite his injuries, Smiley wanted to go back to Ground Zero to help with the response work. From early October till December of 2001, Smiley worked as a paramedic on Ground Zero, walking the pile helping injured responders. Smiley remembers eating in the mess tents on the site where they were largely contaminated by the dust.

Years later, Gary started experiencing sinus complications, leading to multiple sinus reconstruction surgeries. He developed asthma, reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS), and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) all around the same time. Knowing firsthand the mental and physical battle responders are currently fighting, he works with others to ensure responders are informed and connected to the care and compensation they need. “I don’t know anyone who is not sick who was there with me on the day of the collapse. And a lot of them have died, and a lot of them recently which is even more scary because its years later and these guys are dying and they’re getting cancer. It’s these very aggressive cancers, and I was scared to go in for a colonoscopy, and my buddies had to drag me to go in for it. I thank them all the time. This is what we have to push around the anniversary, for folks to get their screenings. That’s the best present you could ever give yourself, cause its peace of mind.”

Smiley recognizes the unique challenges of reaching this population who often think of others first. “Responders are all care-givers, whether you were a construction worker or Verizon worker or a volunteer, you were down there to do a job and now we worry about all those people, and nobody got out of there for free.” Smiley says sharing his journey battling 9/11 related illnesses is an effective way for people to finally understand what’s at stake. Smiley lost his home and family and friend relationships while fighting his conditions. “I don’t what happened to me to happen to them, you have to get tested, you have to screened.” On this 9/11 anniversary, join me and the responder community in spreading the good news that help is available for those that helped us.

To enroll in the program, please contact NYCOSH @ 212-227-6440 x 21 or the WTC HP directly @ 1-888-982-4748