Monday, August 12, 2002

Today was my Grandmother's birthday, and the fam went out for lunch at a seafood restaurant. Good food, but I was absolutely exhausted. I ordered a glass of wine to help numb the headache I had listening to my mom and uncle go round for round about the Yankees and the Braves and the baseball strike, yadda, yadda, yadda. I went home and fell into a coma. The Better Half's parents are in town, so I went over there for a little while. They look great, but his mom's a bit under the weather. It was such a hot day for traveling, I am sure I would feel the same way.

I've felt so many emotions as of late, I want to choose my words carefully here, as not to offend anyone. Things aren't so good for me faith-wise right now. Spiritually, I think I'm in a crisis. First, I was disappointed with WYD. Now, as of yesterday, my priest, and dear friend, Father John Leonard, is the subject of a criminal investigation of some very serious sexual abuse charges. I continue to support Father Leonard as he maintains his innocence. Father Leonard helped me through a rough patch in my life. He forgave me and hugged me and told me to call him if I needed anything. Now is my opportunity to return the favor, despite the outcome of the investigation, I still consider Father Leonard my friend, and I will love him despite his sins. I continue to watch and wait with knots in my stomach in hopes that this ends in a timely manner, and everyone involved finds peace with the final decisions.

I just heard on the news that an all-day tribute is being planned for September 11. I realize that this will probably be a day of reflection, fear, anxiety for many people. My September 11th story is really unremarkable. Like millions of Americans, I watched the news unfold on TV at work. I remember being terrified. I never really wrote about September 11th before now. I got anxious, then depressed, then active again, and never seemed to find the time. I remember that I was driving to work that morning going to a dreaded day shift, and the news on the radio was uneventful—I think Bob Dole’s wife was going to run for Senate---that was the big story. When I got to work and started group therapy, I saw the Tower on fire, but I turned off the TV and did group with the male patients. Afterwards, I turned it back on, thinking that maybe the restaurant on top of the tower caught fire. I don’t know how the ideas formed in my brain as I watched something go very very wrong. I just kept seeing this plane run into the other tower. It was confusing. Then the NBC guy that works the Pentagon told the anchor that “the Pentagon just shook.” Then they cut to this smoky big building.
Lucy said, “Oh Jesus God, that’s the Pentagon.”
“No, that’s New York.” I said. But Lucy was right—right after that, "THE PENTAGON" popped up on the TV screen.
“Oh Jesus God. Nick’s in Washington!” Lucy’s eyes teared up.
I walked out of the TV room. Maybe an escape??? I passed Cathy in the hall.
“They hit the Pentagon now. This is big.” I told her.
She had just come back from taking a patient to the clinic. “Don’t say anything, don’t freak, but when I was at the clinic, someone said Williamsburg was hit.”
My stomach churned—inside, I felt trapped inside the building. Richmond had to be next…but for what??? Were these airplanes going to pull an Independence Day and hit all major cities??? In the nurse’s station, Lucy was crying on the phone to her daughter, Marion.
“Marion, when you get ahold of Daddy tell him he needs to get out of Washington now.”
I called Mom. “Are you watching the news?”
“I know. Shannon called. What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. The Pentagon’s been hit now. I gotta go. I’m watching.”
“Call me back if anything else happens.” We hung up. Security was up on the floor, I think for a patient.
”Are you guys on alert??” I asked.
The female guard said, “Yeah. We’ve got the command center set up with VCU police. Classes are cancelled. They’re starting to clear out the buildings near here, possible targets. The hospital is on external disaster protocol.”
“Be careful.” I remember telling her.
I tried to concentrate on work but I couldn’t. Karen sat down.
“There’s going to be a meeting around 12 for all the big-wigs and the charge nurses of each unit. So far, I've gathered that we’re going on external disaster. The staff go on 12 hour shifts. I think we’re under attack.”
”Maureen’s [my daughter] four blocks away from the tower.” Cathy told me.
“How are you so calm?” I asked.
“I can go crazy, but that’s a waste of effort to worry. I know there is nothing I can do.” Cathy has 8 kids. She acts like it too, nothing ever really freaks her out. I was freaking out. I thought about John’s parents in NJ.
Vanessia, our unit secretary, came up to me and handed me something. “Call John now.” A phone message from the Better Half. I went into the med room.
“Hey—what is going on?” He sounded worried. “They’re evacuating all of the federal buildings downtown. I only just saw the news. Dad’s supposed to be downtown in Manhattan today.”
“He’s okay.” I told him, wanting to believe I wasn’t lying to him.
“Yeah. I love you.” I wanted to tell him to start praying. What else was there to do?
I didn’t want to stay til 7. I wanted to just go home . I remember thinking how I'd thought I would act in a situation like this. In my mind, I’d be heroic—the perfect nurse, like that chick in Pearl Harbor. In reality I was shit scared. I just wanted to go home. I wanted to get away. I had recently thought about the Navy. How could I be in the Navy, in a war, when I couldn’t even do this?
Back in the TV room, the first tower crumbled.
“Oh God. Those fireman just went inside!!!” Lucy said.
Mary Neddo, a nurse on our sister unit, called from downstairs. “ Hey, Rob’s not getting his ECT tomorrow because the hospital’s on external disaster protocol. All scheduled operations are cancelled because they want the anesthesia teams to be on call for possible victims.”
“Isn’t this scary Mary?” We’d grown closer since her husband Bill died unexpectedly.
“You guys call if you need us.”
Karen reiterated for us the proceedings after she came back from the meeting.
We were told to expect 500, possibly more, from NY and DC. They would probably be walking wounded or anyone who could survive an ambulance ride the two hours from DC or the five hours from NY. As you remember, all of the national airspace had shut down, and no mediflights could be granted clearance. Even psychiatry would be expected to have open beds, and usually we didn't take patients who were medically unstable, because of liability issues of mixing them with potentially violent patients. Regular psych admissions would be diverted, and anyone who was appropriate for discharge would meet up with a social worker in the cafeteria, where they’d be triaged and sent wherever. We would start taking 12 hour shifts at 7 pm. Those going home at 3 could opt to stay. I didn’t opt. I suddenly didn't want to be heroic or strong. I wanted to go home and fall apart, without worrying about someone else's well-being in my fragile hands. As Darling Paul, my rock just told me, “Just take good care of your patients. That’s all you need to do.” Later he would cry as he told us about the meeting. The chaplain said a prayer. What was so incredible was that some people still hadn’t heard the news when they entered the meeting, and were wondering what was going on.
I called Mom back. “Genie’s on external disaster too.” (My aunt who works in postpartum at another area hospital)
“Yeah, but we’re the magnet hospital because we’re Level one trauma.”
“Sounds like you’re the place to be. Did you ever think you’d be a part of something like this in your career?”
“No. But Mom, I’ll tell you something. I’m fired up now, because my adrenaline’s kicked in, but this isn’t fun. Not exciting either.”
“Of course not.”
“Mom, those buildings are gone.” The news showed the second tower crumbling. It still makes me sick. The whole building crumbled down. First the radio tower, then the huge rectangle that I had climbed up myself. I owned a poster of a cartoon of New Yorkers that I had bought on the top of the observation deck. I had a picture of myself standing with New York behind me. The last time I’d seen the World Trade Center was from the window of my Amtrak sleeper on my trip home from Canada that previous June. It was controversial, but I now don’t regret giving into my fears and not flying home, instead opting for the train. It was the last time I would see the towers.

To our generation, the "Where were you when..." question is about that day. For our parents, it was the Kennedy assassination. For our grandparents, it was Pearl Harbor. For us, it's 9/11.

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