World Trade Center Health Program Still Saves Lives 20 Years Later

Former Piscataway firefighter Frank Geffre and Iris Udasin
Since 2003, Iris Udasin and a team of doctors, nurses, case managers, mental health professionals and administrative staff have been examining those sickened by the toxic fumes at Ground Zero including former Piscataway firefighter Frank Geffre.
John Munson

Piscataway firefighter Frank Geffre didn’t think twice when he rushed to the World Trade Center 20 years ago on September 11, 2001, after two planes took down the twin towers, killing nearly 3,000 people in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Neither did Ellie Barbarash, a Con Edison worker who went to the site in lower Manhattan a few days later volunteering as an occupational safety first responder, making sure respiratory and safety devices were fitted properly for those working on the pile digging through 1.8 million tons of debris.

Nor did Bill Ricci, when he joined other firefighters from Clifton and surrounding towns on September 13 to do whatever they could to help despite being told that some local municipalities would not sanction their participation.

Two decades later, they are among the estimated 400,000 who were exposed to toxins at Ground Zero. The three are still connected not only through the memory of that horrible day but also through the World Trade Center (WTC) Health Program at Rutgers University Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI) that, they say, helped them heal physically and mentally and is the reason they are alive today.

“I was one of those big jock guys in high school playing football, hockey and baseball who was in the best of shape and now I have a hard time breathing,” said Geffre, 56, who went to see Iris Udasin, medical director at the WTC Health Program in 2005, two years after it opened and he was forced to leave the department because of chronic illnesses. “Since 9/11, I’ve had cancerous nodes in my sinus canal, colon cancer, almost lost my left kidney because of intense radiation and would have died without the treatments and procedures I got because of Dr. Udasin.”

Since 2003, Udasin and a team of doctors, nurses, case managers, mental health professionals and administrative staff have been examining those sickened by the toxic fumes – seeing 200-300 annually for the first few years and jumping to about 2,000 annually for the last 15 years.

Iris Udasin

20 years later, Rutgers doctors still healing wounds of 9/11

The center – one of six WTC Health Program clinics that service 9/11 first responders in the NY/NJ area, along with a national program that services first responders who have moved outside of NY/NJ – has 4,784 on its list of patients and is currently treating 2,526 for ailments ranging from respiratory and gastrointestinal disorders to sleep apnea, post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer, particularly head and neck cancers.

Last year, when the coronavirus became a global pandemic and some yearly exams were done via telemedicine instead of in person, COVID-19 was added to the list of illnesses that could be life threatening to many of these immunocompromised 9/11 first responders.

“We’ve had six of our patients die of COVID-19, five which happened pre-vaccine, one who was going to come see me in December and died in his sleep before he got here,” said Udasin. “Another one was only being treated for asthma but he, unfortunately, was not yet vaccinated and died.”

While most of those seen at the WTC Health Program have been first responders, some have been construction workers, journalists and people just living or working and breathing the air surrounding the collapsed buildings.

“What I want to make sure is that everyone that was affected 20 years ago is getting the benefits they deserve and the kind of care that they need,” said Udasin. “It’s horrible enough to have to live with these illnesses but at least these patients know that they did the right thing, and they are now getting the care they deserve.”

Many of the thousands of patients who have been seen at the WTC Health Program felt like they were on their own, fighting for health coverage related to the exposure they endured during the time they spent volunteering, hoping to find survivors.

“Within two years, I had respiratory and immune system breakdowns,” said Barbarash, 64, who suffers with neuromuscular and respiratory illnesses and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016. “The center is vital and incredibly important to me. They have my back anytime I’m sick whether I’ve had health insurance or not. And if you just want to talk, someone is there.”

While Barbarash, who lives in Philadelphia with her medical service dog, began experiencing health problems soon after her exposure during 9/11, it took more than 15 years for Ricci, 50, to get sick with what he thought could be anything from bronchitis to cancer. It started with weird feelings in his feet, fevers, dry coughing, trouble breathing and night sweats.

It took a year, until he met Udasin and her team, to diagnose the problem, a rare respiratory disease that weakens the walls of the airway. While the diagnosis led to his early retirement as a lieutenant in the fire department, his eligibility for accidental disability retirement didn’t happen before Ricci, with the help of Udasin, successfully lobbied for a new law. The Bill Ricci World Trade Center Rescue, Recovery and Cleanup Operations Act, that provides protection for first responders who volunteered on 9/11, was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy in 2019.

“I was going from doctor to doctor, and they said they couldn’t find anything and couldn’t pinpoint it,” Ricci said. “When I got to Dr. Udasin, she knew what it was, and they knew how to treat it. I owe Dr. Udasin and her team everything.”

The health center will commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Sept. 10 by sponsoring an event to honor those lost and the first responders who rushed in without hesitation to help the injured.

“We have funding for as long as our patients are alive,” said Udasin, referring to the 2019 reauthorization of the Zadroga Act, spearheaded by comedian Jon Stewart and others, that funds World Trade Center workers’ health care for 75 years. “A lot of people worked hard to make this happen and we will be here to make sure these heroes get the care they deserve."