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Remembering 9/11: Taking Action Where You Live

On 9/11, many of us reminisce about where we were on that fateful day 15 years ago. I was in my car, driving to my internship at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and I had just started my second year of graduate school. As I sat in my little Pontiac, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. The first tower had been hit by an airplane.  That must have been a mistake.  Maybe it wasn't real. Then, as I parked my car, and arrived to my office, I heard the sounds of radios and televisions playing the tragedy out. People in the office were frantically calling their friends and loved ones in New York, wondering, hoping, and praying they were not at the Twin Towers that day.

Later that day, I was walking to class past the now destructed old College of Public Health building. New construction plans were in progress, and a pile of rubble lay in front of the building. As I walked by, I thought to myself, this is a small scale of what those in New York City are walking by today...memories, dreams, plans, sitting in a pile of rubble. I recalled my own experience in New York City, having moved there after receiving my bachelor's degree.  I had moved to New York from a small college in the Midwest not knowing a single soul. Yet, I found the streets strangely familiar and comforting.  My first day, an employee at Port Authority approached me and said, "You know, you can let someone help you." And, he did.

On that day, 9/11/2001, all of my wonderful memories came flooding back to me, and I was heartbroken. Heartbroken for the dreams I had and for the citizens of a city who had welcomed me.  I sullenly walked through the halls to where our department was housed.  One of the first people I encountered was the late Dr. Samuel Levey. He had lived in New York for quite some time himself.  As I walked by, he said something to the effect of what would I do about 9/11. How would I react.

I went home that night and tossed and turned.  Dr. Levey had a way of saying things that made them stick with you, seemingly forever.  I wondered what could I do. What difference could I make? I considered driving to New York to help with the clean-up.  However, that wasn't really feasible because I was in graduate school, and I had responsibilities there. I thought about joining the public health corps, but as time went on, news reports indicated there were more than enough volunteers. Also, I realized that serving as a volunteer wasn't really possible at the time.  I began to wonder what I could do where I was, and how I could affect change where I lived.

Over the coming weeks, I developed an idea to create a forum about reacting and responding to 9/11 and other disasters. I learned that I wasn't the only student at the time who was wondering, "what could I do?"  The forum was meager, but a start. Later that year, the university held a disaster preparedness conference, which I also attended.  Then, we began to learn about the complexities of the disaster and how it expanded much farther than the World Trade Center.  Data systems for hospitals went down, hospitals were overcrowded, patients needed to be moved to alternate locations.

In the years since 9/11, National Emergency Preparedness became commonplace.  In fact, September is National Emergency Preparedness Month. That sense of urgency, that something must be done in a disaster, never left my thoughts. As I completed disaster drills as part of my job in emergency department administration at a public hospital, I did so knowing the importance of the method and the importance of preparation.