Where Were You?
“Where were you when the world stopped turning…?”
On September 11, 2001, I was working in the Adult Emergency Department wearing my green scrubs seeing patients – just like every Tuesday. A couple of hours into the shift, I remember hearing that one of the Twin Towers in New York had been struck by a plane.
Like most people, I assumed it was an accidental plane crash. I made my way back to an area in the back of the ED where we had a TV and watched in horror as the second tower was struck and the awful realization hit me that this was no accident.
Shortly after that, reports were coming in about the attack at the Pentagon and the crash of the plane into a field in Pennsylvania. For hours we held our breath waiting for the next news flash. Of course, as an ED doc, my mind went to how we could accommodate additional patients in the ED if needed. Dr. Conerly, the vice chancellor, called to see how many patients we could accept if asked to do so. I remember my reply was something along the lines of “We are full right now. We are struggling to take the patients from State Street.” (In fact, this is often the case.)
This week, on Tuesday, September 11, I posted a question on my Facebook page asking people where they were when they heard we were attacked on American soil 17 years ago. As of this morning, I’ve received 162 comments from people far and wide, including some of you.
I was not surprised at the volume of responses, but was struck by how very precise and specific they were. The memories of where we were and exactly what we were doing at that moment are detailed, vivid and deeply etched. People also commented on the emotion of the moment and the urge to be with their families and hold everyone close.
There was this one from a colleague in emergency medicine, Dr. Chet Shermer:
“I had just finished the night shift in the ER (I bet you were my relief) and had barely gotten to sleep when my wife woke me up with the terrible news. I immediately went and picked my children up from school and got us all together as the events continued to unfold. Will NEVER forget it.”
Or this, from an old friend from Grenada, Reid Stanford:
“I was up all night working on a paper. A friend called and woke me up and we talked as the second plane hit. Two days later we were in New York helping campus crusade. The subways smelled of decomposition, the streets looked like a military zone, and the silence surrounding the grieving onlookers will be forever etched in my mind. I remember hearing a faint noise and walking three full blocks before realizing it was a child with a bell on his bike. It was the only sound breaking through the silence.”
Or this, from nursing faculty member Dr. Josie Bidwell:
“I was at Ole Miss. My mom called and the first words out of her mouth were “We are under attack!”
Or this, from Ann Becker, who works with Entergy:
“With my baby girl at her one-year pediatric check-up. Walked back in the house and saw the news coverage as the second tower fell. Remember thinking, 'What kind of world is she going to grow up in?'”
For the rest of that day and many days after, it took more effort than usual to focus on the task at hand. My thoughts kept going back to the attacks, trying to sort out what it meant for today and for our future and trying to comprehend the magnitude of the impact on so many people.
I have visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York. If you ever have the opportunity to do so, I highly recommend it. It will take your breath away. The twin reflecting pools, tracing the footprint of the towers, is a sacred place. The 2,977 names inscribed on bronze panels honor the fellow Americans we lost that day and those killed in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
Part of my training as an emergency medicine resident included time riding with first responders. This exposure was not enough to allow me to claim to fully understand their work or their world but I understand it enough. Enough so that I never criticized them when they didn’t have IV access on a combative and agitated patient. Enough so that I didn’t disparage them when they couldn’t secure an airway on the trauma patient with multiple injuries including facial trauma. Enough so that I was always grateful for what they were able to accomplish under challenging conditions prior to presentation to the ED. Enough so that I will forever have a deep respect and appreciation for the amazing work they do every single day. But especially on the most difficult of days, and none more so than on 9/11.
Our first responders do astonishing work every day and every night under the worst of circumstances in situations that are often only minimally secure. They step out every day into settings that are, quite frankly, uncertain and potentially dangerous. On 9/11, so many of our nation’s first responders and ordinary citizens became national heroes.
Even as I write this, three of our emergency services staff are deployed to the Carolinas, helping to evacuate people as Hurricane Florence assaults the coast. They are typical of first responders: they run toward the danger, not away. Our prayers are with them and with our fellow citizens dealing with this disaster, and we wish them Godspeed.
I am typically a stoic person. Until someone plays God Bless America or I see the Marshall Ramsey cartoons about that day. Or I visit the 9/11 Memorial. Then tears fill my eyes.
I am proud of our country. We are a diverse nation and our differences make us stronger. But I believe we should also remember that our commonalities also make us strong. This week is a good time to pause and reflect on that, as we all strive to achieve A Healthier Mississippi.