Wednesday, June 09, 2004

NYCOSH Awards Speeches:The World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program at Mt. Sinai -- Drs Steve Levin and Robin Herbert

This concludes the series of excerpts from the speeches delivered at the NYCOSH 25th Anniversary Awards Ceremony last month. This award went the Dr. Steve Levin and Dr. Robin Herbert on behalf of the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program at Mt. Sinai.

Dr. Steve Levin
Woody Allen has said that 90% of success is just showing up. The Selikoff Center for Occupational & Environmental Medicine at Mount Sinai has a pretty long history of showing up – when issues affecting the health of working people have arisen, when we have been asked (and even sometimes when nobody asked), we have tried to be of help and say honestly what we think. In that, we’re carrying on a tradition at Mount Sinai established by Dr. Selikoff and sustained by Phil Landrigan. By instruction and example, Selikoff made three points very clear: number one, you keep your eye on the prize – improving the health of working people – that’s the goal. Number two, you use or develop the best scientific information you can to figure out how to change things for the better – science was to serve the cause of reducing human suffering and not be just a thing that scientists do for their own satisfaction; and number three: you’re going to be a hell of a lot more effective if you can find some unions to work with. If you examine Dr. Selikoff’s professional life, that’s the way he worked. And organized labor played a key role in his most important work.

But there’s no question that having direct contact with these men and women – most of whom were regular, more or less non-heroic people in their daily lives up to September 10 – raised the level of commitment for all of us. Because so many of them, faced with intense challenges to body and spirit, had in fact performed heroically, doing everything they could do to save lives, and then doing what had to be done when it was clear that saving lives was no longer a possible mission. And now they were ill, distressed and worried. And there were far more of them than could be absorbed into our understaffed, underfunded clinical center.

We knew something had to be done on a larger scale, to find workers and volunteers who were ill and get them into treatment somehow. And so did people from organized labor in NYC, because they saw what was happening to their members. The firefighters and their doctors had also been making similar requests for help. So we developed a proposal for a screening program for WTC responders, in coordination with the Central Labor Council (special thanks to Ed Ott who pushed for this), and it was labor at the state and city level who took the proposal to Senator Clinton. She listened, she understood the issue, and she did something about it. She pulled together the NY legislative delegation; they fought for the resources, and eventually secured $12 million from FEMA for the WTC Screening Program, funded as a contract from NIOSH. We were amazed. And grateful for the chance to do what we could.

Well, showing up may be 90% of success….. but what’s the other 10%? Maybe having real knowledge and experience, so that when you do show up you either know what to do or know how to find out. Some of that 10% has to include understanding and caring about the lives of working people; that makes a difference, too. And having good friends and allies. That’s a big deal.
Dr. Robin Herbert
It is truly an honor to have the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening program honored by NYCOSH. I am particularly proud that our program is being honored at an event that is also recognizing Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, because she has been a true champion of programs to monitor the health of World Trade Center responders.

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers resulted in horrific loss of life. Amid the shock and grief we all experienced immediately after the attacks, some failed to recognize that the terrorists had also created one of the worst acute environmental disasters in an urban setting ever to occur in the history of the United States.

Thousands of heroic men and women rushed into this environmental disaster to conduct rescue, recovery, and restoration of essential services. They risked their lives in a moment of national crisis, and unfortunately, many have gone on to develop a wide range of physical and mental health consequences due to their exposures.

In response to this public health disaster, the Mount Sinai Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine received federal funding from NIOSH to establish and coordinate the World Trade Center worker and volunteer medical screening program. We are deeply grateful to the broad coalition of labor and elected officials who fought long and hard to secure funding to establish this vitally needed screening program. Together with our regional partners at the Long Island occupational health clinic , TBA… and with our national partner, the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, the program has provided 11,660 screening examinations to World Trade Center responders.

We are proud that our program is being recognized tonight, because this honor is recognition of the importance of providing medical monitoring to the thousands of heroes who responded to the World Trade Center disaster. These heroes are from all walks of life and all parts of the globe. They include law-enforcement officers, members of the building trades, a range of municipal workers, telephone and utility repair workers, transit workers, building service workers, and hundreds of other workers and volunteers. They gave selflessly of themselves in the face of a crisis..

Unfortunately, the impact of the heroic response of our patients on their lives has often been catastrophic. Many of our patients have become disabled by World Trade Center related physical and mental health problems. While it is a privilege and an honor to provide care to World Trade Center responders, it has also been heartbreaking to see the ongoing difficulties they are facing. I would be remiss if I didn’t end my comments tonight by reminding everyone here that WTC responders are still facing the same nightmarish experiences with the Workers Compensation insurers as other New York State injured workers face. I hope you will all join in the struggle for legislative reform of this system.