Last fall, you couldn't go to a meeting and not share your feelings, experiences, stories, and tears about the September 11 terrorist attacks. But now, so many months later, 9/11-related meeting topics are more likely to be along the lines of preparing for bioterrorism and chemical and radioactive terrorist attacks than about dealing with the lingering trauma of healthcare professionals who were at the scene, or those who worry about how they'll handle it emotionally if the next attack happens on their front doorstep. We've all come to terms with the pain and are moving on, right?
Maybe not, if the standing-room-only crowd at a session held at the National Association of Orthopaedic Nurses Annual Congress in late May is any indication. The meeting room at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas was packed with more than 400 people who came to listen to three New York City nurses talk about their experiences during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, how different healthcare agencies worked together, and how they have been coping in the aftermath.
Slides of medical workers, search-and-rescue dogs, twisted metal, dust, and death flashed relentlessly across the screens as Maureen Whalen, RN, case manager at St. Vincent's Medical Center; Doreen Johnson, RN, nursing educator, The Hospital for Special Surgery; and Nancey Mooney, RN, pain management coordinator, Lenox Hill Hospital, told the crowd what it was like to be on the front lines of America's worst terrorist attacks. After the presentation, person after person rose up from the audience to share experiences and emotions.
Prescription for Pain
“The impact is still right there, just below the surface,” says Johnson, who spoke about how her hospital and New York Presbyterian Medical Center's Burn Unit responded to the crisis. “The audience was overwhelmed. There's a real need for nurses to talk about it and release some of the feelings they have. It's still very painful,” she says. “No one was ready for something like that, and people who don't live in New York wanted to know how we handled it.”
Whalen was literally on the front lines in the trauma center at St. Vincent's Hospital, which was in high gear to receive huge numbers of victims. She spoke about the preparations they made in anticipation, and how it felt to wait, and keep waiting, for patients who never came.
Mooney, whose apartment is close to the World Trade Center site and just around the corner from a firehouse that lost eight men that day, was worried she wouldn't be able to get through her portion of the presentation. “I used humor to survive — when I got up on the podium, I introduced myself as the poster child for post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“Maureen and Doreen had scripted things to go with the PowerPoint slides,” says Mooney, who spoke last. “I just let the slides speak for themselves and talked over them about the impact on my community. Then when I got to the podium, it occurred to me that the community is all of us, not just Brooklyn Heights.”
She tells of a chance meeting with the father and little brother of a woman in her building who had been killed in the towers. “I didn't even know her, but I told her family how sorry I was for their loss and kind of broke down. The little boy said to me, ‘You didn't even know her and you're this upset?’ I said, ‘You may not know it, but the whole world is upset about the loss of your sister.’”
In fact, an international speaker who was giving a session that ran concurrently with the New York nurses' presentation told them in the speaker ready room that the effects had been felt overseas as well. “She said ours was the one presentation she really wanted to hear, so we went through it for her, and she was just sobbing. It's not just us in New York; people everywhere still feel the impact,” says Mooney.
Mooney also talked about how it felt when, just as Lennox Hospital workers were getting over the shock of the World Trade Center bombings, the first health care worker to die of anthrax died in her hospital. “We did a huge screening” of people who might have been exposed. “Those poor people … women with their kids … everyone was a wreck. But it restored my faith in the system because it was very organized, very well-run.”
Facing the Future
“A lot of people fear that people will forget, but I don't think so,” says Mooney, adding that the New York NAON chapter felt so strongly about the issue that it changed its logo to include the World Trade Center towers and the words “Never forget.”
Mooney, for one, never will. On September 11, she was in Washington, D.C., representing the Orthopaedic Nurses of New York at an American Nursing Association meeting. When she finally was able to return home on Friday, she saw the smoke from the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers sites on the same day. She still can't walk by the fire station without choking up.
“Everybody knows that the potential is there for all healthcare workers to have to deal with a tragic situation like that, but you never think you'll have to be the one to do it,” says Johnson. “People who came said it was inspiring to hear how nurses came together and spent endless hours trying to help victims and families, to feel what they went through, and to share some of the things they felt, the ways they helped, people they knew who were involved, and their stories — many, many stories.”