Ken George, 47, North Babylon

Ken George reacts as he waits for the

Ken George reacts as he waits for the Senate to pass the Zadroga Bill from his home in North Babylon, N.Y. (Dec. 22, 2010) (Credit: Ed Betz)

New York City Department of Transportation worker. Worked at the pile through February 2002, then on weekly rotations. Suffers lung and heart ailments and post traumatic stress disorder. Has not worked since 2006

 

Come summer nights, Ken George leaves the television on in his bedroom. He needs the distraction - crickets singing prompt nightmares of those first hours at the pile, the pinging of distress alarms emitted from missing firefighters.

When the towers fell, George and fellow New York City DOT workers were bused from their Queens depot to near the site. They began work on the pile late that night.

Before 9/11, his job required annual medical checkups. George never smoked and was a picture of health, according to his primary care physician, Dr. Mark Kaufman of Family Medical Care in Bay Shore.

"Ken George was a young man, working very hard with no evidence of any medical conditions. The first time he got sick was after being at the pile and a constellation of things occurred," said Kaufman. "It's progressively gotten worse to the point he now has severe COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and at times needs supplemental oxygen. I have no problem believing the damage to his lungs and aerodigestive tract are because of the toxic soup he inhaled after 9/11."

George's declining health has taken a devastating financial toll. He was the breadwinner at the modest North Babylon home where he and his wife Cyndi live with their three children now in their 20s, a grandchild and Cyndi's elderly mother. Before 9/11, George worked two jobs - part-time shifts at Home Depot supplemented his DOT pay check - and he was on track to be promoted to supervisor with the city job when his health forced him to quit in 2006.

Four years earlier, he applied for and got a payout from the 2001 Victims Compensation Fund. The amount - payment "final" - estimated economic losses at around $17,000. Back then George felt sure he'd never have to quit the DOT, he was just struggling to keep up the second job.

Dr. Jim Melius, chair of the Steering Committee for the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program said it took time for science and medical studies to catch up. It wasn't until 2007 that sufficient medical and scientific findings began to emerge to propel the federal government into funding responders' treatment.

The Georges, meanwhile, struggled. They used up savings, fell behind on mortgage payments and stressed over making ends meet. Fiercely self-reliant people, they found themselves accepting groceries and gifts from friends and supporters.

George is relieved his health care costs for the next five years are taken care of under the Zadroga Act. But he hopes when the compensation rules are written he and others whose health has forced them out of work will be able to reapply.

"That," he said, "would bring some peace of mind."

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