9/11 first responders endure life they never expected

Louis Ferrara of Valley Cottage stands near the Louis Ferrara of Valley Cottage stands near the Rockland County 9/11 memorial in Haverstraw Bay Park in West Haverstraw. He is a retired EMT who spent three days at Ground Zero in the end of September 2001. He has suffered numerous health complications, including a brain tumor. (Sept. 7, 2012) Photo Credit: Angela Gaul

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Eleven years after 9/11, the men and women who toiled in the smoldering debris of Ground Zero spend their days adjusting to a life they never envisioned when they answered the call for help.

John Walcott, 48, is a former New York City Police Department narcotics detective who was living in Pomona when he got called to Ground Zero.

He spent the next eight months at the site, identifying the remains of the dead, helping to dig out bodies and sifting through debris after it had been trucked to a Staten Island landfill.

"All that fun stuff," Walcott says in mock humor.

Two years later, Walcott developed a form of leukemia his doctors say is linked to the toxic mix of chemicals he inhaled at Ground Zero. He received a stem cell transplant in November 2003 that put the cancer in remission.

But thoughts of coaching college hockey when he retired from the NYPD have been dashed as he struggles to deal with lingering neurological ailments from the leukemia that have made it impossible for him to go to work.

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His hands and feet are plagued by a recurring numbness so severe that he didn't notice he was bleeding a few months back when he accidentally dropped a brick on his hand.

"I'm constantly in pain," he said. "But you learn to live with it. It's a lot better than cancer."

Ongoing fight for recognition

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Walcott is among some 20,000 first responders receiving treatment through the World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center for illnesses linked to work at Ground Zero.

Theirs has been a relentless struggle to get the federal government to recognize their illnesses as a result of the attack's aftermath so that they can pay for their health-related issues for the years to come.

Led by advocates like the Long Island-based Feal Good Foundation, they have urged the federal government to set aside some $2.7 billion in compensation for 9/11-related health problems.

But the distribution of that money has been delayed while the federal government decided whether certain cancers should be added to the list of ailments covered by the fund.

That change took place Monday when John Howard, the administrator of the World Trade Center Health program, announced the addition of dozens of types of cancers to the list, easing the way for responders to seek compensation through the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

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Included in the list are cancers of the esophagus, stomach and larynx as well as cancers of the blood and tissues like lymphoma and leukemia.

"The publication of this final rule marks an important step in the effort to provide needed treatment and care to 9/11 responders and survivors through the WTC Health Program," Howard said.

John Feal, who leads the foundation that bears his name, says the rule change will make it easier for responders to pay their bills.

"These 9/11 responders are making decisions every day on whether they can put food on the table," Feal said. "They're wondering if they should pay their mortgage this month or pay for their medication."

Ailments persist as memories fade

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Some responders worry that on the 11th anniversary of the attacks, their lingering problems are being forgotten as the nation moves further from the tragic events of 9/11.

"It's 11 years on Tuesday," said Louie Ferrara, a former emergency medical technician from Valley Cottage. "The responders. The ironworkers. The family members of the victims. We'll never forget. But now I'm wondering if the community is starting to forget, or do they just remember it for one day?"

Ferrara, 41, worked for a private ambulance service for three days in the weeks after the attacks and in the years that followed was felled by a series of ailments he says were caused by his work aiding injured first responders at Ground Zero.

His weight is down to 161 pounds from nearly 280 after operations to remove tumors from his throat and brain as well as one on his sinuses.

"I miss being me," Ferrara said. "The old me is gone."

He's receiving treatment through the Mount Sinai program and, through the Feal Good Foundation, frequently travels to Washington to pressure lawmakers on behalf of first responders like himself.

For three months after 9/11, Rich Palmer, 50, helped oversee a morgue set up at Bellevue Medical Center as a deputy warden for the New York City Department of Correction. His work forced him to make frequent visits to Ground Zero.

He recalls seeing burning jet fuel sparking fires underneath the pile of debris for weeks after 9/11.

"I remember getting out of my car and seeing it was still burning even weeks later," Palmer said. "And you're thinking, 'When is this going to stop?' "

All he was given was a paper mask to cover his mouth.

In 2005, while working a security job after retiring from the Department of Correction, he began experiencing a shortness of breath.

"I didn't know what was going on," said Palmer, who lives in Yorktown. "I couldn't walk from here to the driveway without sucking wind."

The following year, he underwent quadruple-bypass surgery on his heart. Today, he takes 17 pills every day for a variety of heart and respiratory ailments and rarely sleeps through the night.

"This is not what should happen to someone when they're 43 years old," he said. "I'm constantly in doctors' offices. This is not what I planned on doing when I retired."

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