Upstate Respiratory Therapy alum and faculty stepped forward to help after 9/11
Greg Frani was a second-year student in the Respiratory Therapy program at Upstate Medical University’s College of Health Professions when terrorists attacked America on September 11, 2001. A volunteer firefighter, he wanted to do something to help. He soon got the opportunity.
The American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC), the national association for respiratory therapists, has a Disaster Medical Assistance Team, recalled Sheila Young, who was a member of the Respiratory Therapy faculty in the College of Health Professions at the time.
The AARC reached out to the respiratory therapy community and schools to ask for help, she said. “Due to the poor air quality, we knew that respiratory problems, like shortness of breath and cough, would be prevalent. We volunteered to assist in any way that we could.”
Two teams traveled to New York. They worked in a makeshift space at the 13th Precinct House, about an hour’s walk from Ground Zero. For two days, they worked long hours providing pulmonary function testing for those working at the site of the World Trade Center.
“It was mostly police officers, with an occasional firefighter,” remembered Kathleen Beney, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Respiratory Therapy Education in the College of Health Professions. First responders would come in from working at Ground Zero, looking through the debris and wreckage for possessions and remains.
The job for the Upstate teams was to conduct pulmonary function tests in order to assess breathing and establish a “baseline” for the lung function of the officers. The officers were asked to breathe forcefully into a spirometer that measured the volume and rate of speed of air that could be exhaled over several seconds. The ensure accuracy, the process would be repeated after a pause of several minutes to make sure that the results were reproducible.
It was during those pauses that those who came to be tested often opened up about what they were experiencing and feeling. “We were some of the first people these police officers and others had a chance to talk with who weren’t colleagues or family,” Beney said.
Emotions poured out, Young recalled. “People just needed to share.” They talked, they cried. Some dealt with the situation with humor. Others were silent. “When people have a story to tell you, it’s important to them. You need to make it important to you,” Young said.
Experts in respiratory therapy, their job was to screen workers and send those whose lung function seemed significantly impaired for a more comprehensive follow-up with a team of pulmonologists. But they also found themselves screening for those having difficulty dealing with the situation. “If, in the course of our testing, they were struggling emotionally — having a difficult time — we would refer them to a different team” Beney said.
A month after the attacks, the southern most part of Manhattan was still a landscape of rubble, twisted steel and air thick with smoke and dust. Firefighters, police and others were combing the debris of the World Trade Center. “No doubt they were breathing toxic chemicals,” Beney said. For most, the only protection was a paper mask. Many wore the same mask day after day, despite the fact that after a day of use they offer virtually no protection.
“One good thing is we were able to give them new masks,” Beney said.
At the end of a shift, Beney and Young walked from the 13th Precinct toward Ground Zero. They were still a mile away when the air got too thick with dust for them to continue.
Frani made a similar trip toward what workers were calling “The Pile.” He and a fellow respiratory therapy student stopped at fire houses along the way — New York has more than 250 fire stations. “FDNY is the pinnacle,” for firefighters, Frani explained, and New York firefighters have a reputation for being hospitable to visitors.
The two stopped at Engine 55 in “Little Italy,” met with firefighters and discussed how they were screening the first responders with pulmonary function tests. The next thing they knew, they had been invited to have dinner with the crew. “This is a brotherhood — it’s real,” Frani said.
The experience stayed with Frani. The good: “to help them with a skill set I was acquiring, well you carry that for the rest of your life.” And the bad: He had to end his walk to Ground Zero blocks from the site. “You see the smoke rising and that smell. That smell. It’s something you never forget.”
Frani worked as a respiratory therapist, even taught briefly at Upstate after landing his dream job as a flight respiratory therapist/paramedic doing critical care air medical transport on a helicopter ambulance in Connecticut. He did that for 13 years. Today, he is the administrative director for the Department of Surgery at Hartford Hospital.
He remains active as a volunteer, keeps up his respiratory therapy and paramedic certification and once, a few years back, Frani was activated by the NY-2 Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT), part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, to go to Guam to help during a declared disaster.
For Beney, her experience “simply reinforced my career decisions. It reaffirmed I am in a place where I can contribute and help people.”
Young is never very far from 9/11. Now working as the coordinator of the Pulmonary Function Laboratory at Upstate Community Hospital, she does testing on patients similar to what she did 20 years ago at that precinct house. Every once in a while, she said, someone comes in needing a test due to trouble breathing and she learns that they had worked at Ground Zero.
“The evidence is pretty clear,” said Beney, “that there were significant long-term effects and that many of them suffer with compromised lung function.”
Caption: A month after the attacks of 9/11 students and instructors from the College of Health Professions drove to New York City to spend 12-hour days testing first responders for potential lung problems related to the recovery effort at Ground Zero. From left, Instructor David Wolf, then-students Greg Frani and Brad Kropf, and Instructor Nancy Feocco.