The last time they were together, Stuyvesant HS teacher Anetta Luczak and Stuyvesant graduate Lila Nordstrom were running for their lives.
It was Sept. 11, 2001, and as they ran north, away from the toxic cloud growing over downtown Manhattan, they saw the second World Trade Center tower fall.
Luczak and Nordstrom had an emotional reunion on Feb. 8 in the Stuyvesant auditorium at one of two public forums, where a “Know Your Rights” coalition led by the UFT and health care advocates — including Nordstrom’s Stuyhealth — came together to raise awareness about 9/11 benefits and compensation.
“We are trying to make sure everybody who qualifies for the World Trade Center Health Program understands their rights,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said. “Ordinary people who lived and worked downtown on 9/11, who have gotten sick, often have no idea they are entitled to medical treatment and possibly compensation.”
Former Stuyvesant students suffering 9/11 illnesses told their stories at the forums and at an earlier news conference, hoping to encourage everyone who lived, worked or attended school downtown between Sept. 11, 2001, and May 30, 2002, to find out if they qualify for benefits. Those who were south of Houston Street and have symptoms of 9/11 illnesses may be eligible for health care, while those who were south of Canal Street may be eligible for compensation.
Michael Barasch, a 9/11 victim’s rights attorney, said firefighters and policemen signed up for dangerous jobs, knew the risks and accepted them. “These children, they didn’t accept the risks,” said Barasch, whose firm represents two dozen former area students, including 10 from Stuyvesant HS, who have been diagnosed with cancer. “They were told to go back to school; the air is safe.”
But the toxins released in the terror attacks so far have been linked to 68 different cancers and other illnesses and more than 1,700 people have died from these illnesses.
Kimberly Flynn, the executive director of 9/11 Environmental Action, explained that illnesses need not be catastrophic to be covered. Respiratory issues, sinusitis and gastroesophageal reflux disease, for example, can be treated through the program, as can mental health issues.
“As the first public school to return to Lower Manhattan, Stuyvesant experienced some very extreme conditions,” Nordstrom said. For example, trucks filled with debris went past the school every day for months on their way to a nearby barge. “I started Stuyhealth about 12 years ago because I thought it was important to reach out to students and make sure they understand the concerns.”
Nordstrom also wanted to spread the word that survivors can see doctors anywhere in the country. She lives in Los Angeles and has respiratory and gastroesophageal issues. “Admittance into this program has been a real godsend,” she said. Her doctors are able to access information that allows them to treat patients according to protocol that’s working for other 9/11 survivors. “Because of that, they are able to give me much better care,” she said.
Dr. Jacqueline Moline of Hofstra’s Northwell School of Medicine, one of the founders of the health program, said gathering data is crucial. The federal government “will not cover diseases until they have documentation in science. People should register not only to get care but to allow us to understand the true aftermath of this disaster.”
Pamela King, a teacher at the HS for Economics and Finance, was covered in dust as she fled the school on 9/11 with 23 students in tow. Since 2015, she has had three bouts with various cancers. King didn’t easily make the connection between the infamous day and her illnesses. “That has been a lot of people’s experience,” said King, “just thinking, ‘Oh, I had bad luck.’”
Since then, she has qualified for both the health program and the compensation fund. She only recently decided to come forward, she said, because “our kids are now being diagnosed with cancers and respiratory diseases, so I will go on Facebook and reach out to my former students and beg them to get tested.”
Shoshana Dornhelm, who was a sophomore at Stuyvesant on 9/11, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2016. After six rounds of chemotherapy, her scans are finally clear.
She says she was lucky she had a strong support system and great health insurance and wasn’t even aware of the 9/11 funds until after her treatment. She has now applied for the program and has joined forces with Nordstrom. “Once my scans were clean, I really wanted to help others,” she said.
Dornhelm said she put off submitting her application at first “because there’s no amount of money that can make it right. But signing up is not just for me. Telling my story is part of something bigger.”