The Rev. Terry Lee said he was an undocumented immigrant living in Brooklyn on Sept. 11, 2001. The Jamaican native said he spent months after as a volunteer clergy, blessing remains and comforting other first responders.
But Lee, now a U.S. citizen, will be able to get treatment near his youth ministry.
In a morning ceremony Monday, The World Trade Center Health Program, funded by the federal National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, formally opened a clinic for first responders in Brooklyn. The clinic operates under the control of Long Island's World Trade Center program based at Stony Brook University.
"It's more convenient," Lee said of the clinic located on the SUNY Downstate campus in Flatbush. And, he said, he hoped it would encourage other immigrant first responders who may have feared getting treated outside their neighborhood to seek help.
"Better late than never," said Dr. Benjamin Luft, who is director of Long Island's World Trade Center program and spearheaded the opening of the Brooklyn clinic. "Many people have been suffering for the last 10 years."
Dr. Vrajesh Patel, an internist with the Stony Brook program who has been traveling to Flatbush since the clinic began seeing first responders in February, said the majority had never been treated before and suffered from the same range of problems seen in other first responders: respiratory problems, gastroesophageal reflux and mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Patel said the clinic would also help add to research to understand why the ailments are so persistent.
Luft said he has long believed Brooklyn should have a clinic. "This is one of the places where people really responded," he said. And it was also where much of the plume from the collapsed towers passed.
But until President Barack Obama signed the James L. Zadroga Health and Compensation Act in January 2011, establishing the WTC health program, there were no funds for the clinic. Soon after it became law, Luft said he approached SUNY Downstate about providing space for a clinic while his staff would provide the clinical expertise: a doctor, a nurse and a social worker who come once a week.
No one really knows how many first responders there are in the borough, Luft said, but he and others estimated it could be 4,000 to 8,000, given Brooklyn's population of more than 2.5 million. The Long Island program follows 6,200 first responders and there are clinics in Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, New Jersey and separate programs for first-responder firefighters and WTC survivors.
Dr. Jack DeHovitz, the SUNY Downstate site director, said he was "thrilled" when Luft approached him. "It's an expansion of our mission," he said. "We will be able to treat these heroes."
Rep. Yvette Clarke, who was on hand for the ceremony, said she was shocked when she learned there was no clinic in her borough. "It's almost 11 years and first responders are still dealing with the emotional and physical toll," said the Brooklyn Democrat.