Low Plaza

Medical Students Determined to Help During WTC Tragedy

By Jo Kadlecek

Eric David was finishing his rounds in the Intensive Care Unit at Cooperstown's Bassett Hospital when he first learned of the World Trade Center attack. The fourth-year Columbia medical student was on post-call from the night before and hadn't gotten much sleep when the hospital was contacted for volunteers. He signed up. And waited.

By 5 p.m., his attending physician suggested David would "give much more intensive care down there than here" and told him to take as much time as he needed. He borrowed a friend's car as well as a new car battery, and had to drive through 10 police check-points before he finally made it to Presbyterian Hospital and eventually, Chelsea Pier to volunteer. More waiting.

But early Wednesday morning, David piled into the back of a police cruiser and drove with five officers to Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan. When he arrived at the first triage site—a relatively quiet Stuyvesant High School—David ran into two classmates, Peter Jeff Nicholls and Eamonn Vitt, who had come hours before. The three students—along with at least 15 other Columbia medical students from the College of Physicians and Surgeons—went to work.

First they assisted doctors and nurses who were treating injured relief workers. After a respiratory station and an eye wash station were set up, the classmates ran across the street to the FEMA office, collected cases of respirator masks, helmets and goggles, and headed toward the unimaginable disaster center to hand out the safety gear in hopes of preventing more injuries. They passed charred human remains in smashed emergency vehicles that had arrived before the towers collapsed. Concrete, dust and debris were everywhere.

David then spent most of Wednesday coordinating medical services and supplies between Stuyvesant, the American Express building and 1 Liberty Plaza, making sure each had saline for eyewashes, albuterol and atrovent respiratory treatments, and basic first aid supplies and care. Nicholls, Vitt and other fourth year students— Katerina Christopoulos, Jeremy Keenan, Rebecca Bauer, Alison Sullivan, Kelly Tector and David Spinks—were assigned to medical teams that worked around the clock dispatching aid, trading supplies, carrying boxes, and offering support. For the next three days, the Columbia medical students—joined by an attending physician John Lantis, as well as Columbia residents J Mocco and Fred Ogden—did "whatever needed to be done" to respond to the crisis.

"The adrenaline and camaraderie down there kept us going," said David, who didn't make it back to his apartment until Friday afternoon. "The fact that so many people dropped what they were doing to help will inspire me for a long time. It's made me consider doing more international relief work." From a family of physicians, David studied physics and art as a double major, and became an attorney before returning to his childhood dream at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S). After the week of the disaster, he had no regrets for his decision.

Linda Lewis, dean of students for the P&S, said that Devinder Singh, another fourth year medical student, also responded quickly when he heard the news, grabbed four other classmates, and went to Dallas BBQ. They bought 20 chickens and orders of fries and ran to the 33rd Police Precinct. Officers immediately drove them to the site that later became the first mobile hospital. Singh and his friends were giving out food when a truck with medical supplies arrived and they were told to help unpack them. They, too, organized supplies, treated victims and workers, and offered ongoing support.

And because Peter Jeff Nicholls, a former Peace Corps worker in Africa, was already familiar with such tragedy, he also rushed to the disaster site. He spent the entire week at the Stuyvesant triage center, working with David and other classmates on medical teams When his mother hadn't heard from him for a few days, she grew worried and called Lewis to see if she knew anything about him. Lewis relayed the information of where Nicholls was and his mother responded simply, "I figured he'd be there."

Though many medical students were not able to serve so directly at the crisis center, the number of volunteers who did come forward to help was overwhelming. "We as physicians felt frustrated because we wanted to respond. Still, we were able to mobilize people throughout the week and over the weekend with constant updates and support," Lewis said.

How will those future physicians who worked at Ground Zero be affected by their direct involvement with such horror? "It's difficult for me to answer," said David. "But the camaraderie I developed with colleagues and with patients was very inspiring. No one person was seeking any personal glory from this. It was a united effort and we'll all be affected forever."

Published: Sep 21, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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