LI first responder cheers Zadroga's passage

Ken George, a 9/11 first responder, reacts after

Ken George, a 9/11 first responder, reacts after learning the U.S. Senate passed the Zadroga Bill. (Dec. 22, 2010) (Credit: Ed Betz)

Ken George, hooked up to an oxygen machine, pumped his fist and uttered a triumphant "yes!" when the Senate passed the long-awaited aid bill for 9/11 responders Wednesday.

"What a relief . . . I feel like crying," George, 46, said in his North Babylon living room, his eyes moistening.

The former New York City Department of Transportation worker who worked 16-hour days, seven days a week at Ground Zero in the months immediately following the terror attacks, got the news in a call from his daughter, who was in Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's office with other supporters of the bill.

Stricken with heart and lung ailments that his doctor attributes directly to his time on the pile, George has made the trip to lobby politicians in Washington 22 times himself. He would have been there again Wednesday with wife Cindy, daughter Nicole, 22, and granddaughter Giovanna, 20 months, but he's now too sick to travel.

"People ask, 'What do you want?' I want my medications paid for and to be able to keep seeing the professionals I see now. . . . I want to know when I die, my wife and kids can be cared for."

On a disability pension, George spoke of the hardships he and his family have endured as medical expenses churned through savings, of the arguments with his wife as he deferred taking medicines to cover other priorities, and the $780 a month that he must pay out of pocket for the 33 pills he takes daily.

On his coffee table lay two prescriptions he'd just gotten from his doctor, still unfilled. Cost to George: $180 that insurance won't cover.

"We have no savings at all," Cindy George, 45, said from Washington. "We used up everything to keep the house afloat and on medical costs."

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) said the bill will give first responders like George "guaranteed health care for 9/11-related conditions, and access to compensation to help them cope with economic losses stemming from the attacks." For George, that will bring critical financial help.

Dr. Mark Kaufman, George's primary care physician, described George as "very sick," with severe asthma, restricted airway disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and scarring of the lungs - "all this from a man who was never a smoker."

The nine-year wait for Congress to help has left scars, too. "How dare they," he said of the final debate about the bill's cost. "People are dying now. I feel like saying [to politicians] 'Where were you? You should have been working alongside me when we were told the air was good.' "

George doesn't like to speak much about his time working on the pile - he still has nightmares and certain sounds set off memories that trigger anxiety. But he said he never thought twice about going. "It came with the job, working for the city."

Asked if he would show up again, knowing what he now knows, George paused for a moment. "No, I don't think I would, because nobody cares about my family when I die."

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