Saturday, September 11, 2010

Reflections of a Grady doctor on 9/11: Where I Was.

*In loving memory of those who lost their lives on 9/11 and the people who love and miss them.

The E elevator at Grady Hospital.

That's where I was when I first heard about what was going on. I was on the inpatient service and had come in to round early before going to a clinic session I had scheduled with the medical students that morning. The day started off uneventful. No surprises from the patients, no issues overnight. I made good time, and was scurrying over to Medical Clinic 2 from 12B, the TB isolation floor. That's when I first heard the news. I thought it was a joke. This disheveled, toothless man who wreaked of this nauseating combination of urine, alcohol and must stepped onto the elevator and said,

"Hey Doc! Somebody just crashed a big a-- plane into a big a-- building in New York City!"

Yeah right. I gave him the hairy eyeball. One, because I was riding on the E elevator, which is the only one that takes you to the psychiatry floor (hello?), and two, because it wasn't like this guy seemed to be the most reputable source of information in the world. But being me, I did humor him for a moment or two.

"Oh yeah? A big plane was it? Like a 747?"

"Yuuuup! I ain't lyin' either, doc! A big plane full of people. And it was people all up in the building, too. Like a big a-- skyscraper! In New-York-City!"

I still remember the way he said "New-York-City"--like it was one word. I also remember laughing as I waved goodbye to him, making every effort to remember his animated story to recount to my colleagues later.

I was holding a Styrofoam cup with tepid coffee from the 12B nurses station that I did my best to continue sipping as I shuffled toward the clinic. As soon as I stepped into the waiting area leading to the patient rooms, I saw the crowd. Every patient, staff member, student, and faculty crowded around the little 20 inch television mounted on the corner of the wall.

I squinted my eyes at the image. The two towers of the World Trade Center, one with large plumes of black smoke spilling from a gaping hole on it's side. I put my hand over my chest and gasped. My toothless comrade and his exaggerated hand movements replayed in my head like a silent movie. What's going on. . . . . what in the--

That's when, right before our eyes, a second airbus slammed into the second tower. One woman hollered out in a high-pitched shriek, "Jesus!" --but not in that way a person does when they step on a hard plastic toy in their kids' bedroom or when they realize that they forgot their lunch for work in the refrigerator at home--but in that pleading way that people of deep faith use to petition higher powers. Lord knows, this was a time for calling on a higher power for sure.

Just like that, life as we knew it changed. Changed in a way different than how growing up and maturing changes you. Like everything that felt safe to you, like sitting at your desk at work or lolly-gagging next to the water cooler, could now be terribly unsafe. Every decision could be much more pivotal than you realize. . .like trying to get an earlier flight or stopping to pick up something instead of going to work or buying a coffee in the lobby instead of taking the time to make a cup at home. Two minutes, three minutes can be life or death. In the most everyday situations.

When I was in elementary school, I remember when my cousin, Tot, was hit by a car and killed. He was my uncle and his wife's only child, and just like that--he was gone. I remember as I grew older hearing of plane crashes and even when I became a doctor recognized how swiftly illness could descend upon a family and change it forever. So I learned to fear those things in a healthy way. Saying a little prayer before car trips and thank yous when airplane wheels would touch runways. Being mixed with prayerfulness and tearfulness when sick loved ones feel better or when babies are born with ten fingers and ten toes. Because now I knew what could happen.

But this was different.

A big plane crashed into a skyscraper in New York City. And then, right after that one, another one did. It sounds too crazy to be true. But it's true.

Today, I'm reflecting on the morning that those families had with their loved ones before this happened. I am praying that someone said, "I love you" and that someone else laughed out loud on a cell phone chat while en route to their beat as a New York City police officer. I'm deliberately allowing those sad feelings that I felt resurface. . . those emotions I felt when all of those lost people flashed upon my television screen weeping and holding up their Xerox signs reading "Have you seen my sister? Have you seen my fiance?"

We all called the people we knew in New-York-City and Washington D.C. like we always do when tragedies hit regions where we know people. "Y'all doin' okay?" "Yeah, we all fine." That's what we all get used to, right? That's what we all expect, and most of the time, that's exactly what we get. But this was different. It was so weirdly horrible and unexpected that nothing seemed expected anymore.

Yet eventually. . . .it passed . . . . .kind of like everything does. Like even the most horrific things seem to. People returned to living and took off their black clothing. They got used to the new skyline without it's two pillars and replaced the gaping hole that had taken the "penta" out of The Pentagon. And I guess that's what's supposed to happen, right? Life is supposed to go on. I guess.

Even though the world somehow bounces back from things like planes crashing into buildings and hurricanes putting entire cities/cultures/generations underwater and words that we never heard of like "tsunami" becoming as everyday as "Suze Orman" and carrying on after mommies and daddies lose their only children to unspeakable and unforseen circumstances. . . . .a little part of me feels the need to stay back and linger in the memory for a bit. Morose, I know. . .but necessary for me.

Earlier today I was sitting in the lobby of a car wash and a 9/11 tribute was playing on CNN. Somebody walked up and turned the channel to College Football. I sat there conflicted for a few moments before uttering in the tiniest, most non-confrontational voice I could muster, "Excuse me, I was watching that." I was so relieved when this wise looking elder added with eyebrows raised in a not-so-tiny, and unabashedly confrontational voice, "I was, too."

Yeah, it's heavy, I know. But sometimes it has to be. I have to make myself remember that even though today people like me are getting "Armor All, please" and "not too much air freshener since it makes me sneeze, okay?" and others are turning channels to the big game and rolling their eyes when asked to turn back, the least I could do is my teeny tiny part. . . .to actively remember what happened on this day . . . .to do my best to outstretch my hand in a way that no one may ever feel or care about. . . . yet a way that says, "I remember."

I heard this question multiple times on TV and on NPR today, "Where were you on 9/11?" I'm pretty sure they meant physically "where were you," but today I'm thinking about where I was mentally, too-- a place that I'd have to say is a far cry from where I am now nine years later.

Something changed that day. Life as we knew it changed forever. And somewhere deep down inside of us all, we all know that with these new rules of tragedy and catastrophes . . . .it could have been any one of us.

2 comments:

  1. Girl you have a way with words.. I was at the track at LA SOUTHWEST COLLEGE. I had just rounded the turn in the south side of the the track. Herman , my walking buddy always listened to his portable radio as we walked. he said sort of matter-of-factly, "some little plane just flew into the world trade center."
    Then he said, " sounds like it was a big plane"... We just kept walking.
    When I got home and turned on the TV... as you said Doc KD, the world had changed forever...

    As always, I loved it..

    Poopdeck

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