New York, Va. doctors answer call
By JIM LEONARDO
What is the “right stuff?” Who possesses it, and how does it become manifest?
If the definition touches upon selflessness and the urge to serve humanity in the face of grave danger, the men and women of ASPS have got it. In abundance.
There were scores of society members in or near New York and Arlington, Va., on Sept. 11, and PSN regrets it cannot bring to readers each tale of valor and service. However, there are a few stories that should be brought forth. One is of a plastic surgeon who practices in Manhattan and who narrowly escaped death during the collapse of the World Trade Center (WTC) building.
John Sherman, MD, says he will put up a tooth-and-nail argument against being labeled a hero for his actions Sept. 11. He may be alone in that struggle.
Dr. Sherman, who specializes in cosmetic surgery, has an office in Manhattan about 2 miles north of the WTC and had just finished an interview with a German television crew when his brother called to tell him to turn on his TV. The sight of the burning tower prompted his instant decision to head to WTC.
“I jumped into my scrubs and drove to The New York Hospital – Cornell Medical Center, which is located between my office and the WTC. I ran to the ambulance dispatch center, where I met the head paramedic. We jumped into the paramedic truck and drove down FDR Drive to 34th Street, where FDR had been closed by police.
“By then, I saw both towers on fire, because the second plane had hit. The sight was absolutely astonishing,” he says.
“I was about 100 yards from the front of the building, and I saw people coming out, and jumpers, and piles of clothes on the sidewalk – that was all that was left of the person. When you hit from 100 floors, there’s not much left of you.
“I was trying to find a triage staging area when I saw one of the fire chiefs I knew. I was with him for about 15 minutes trying to figure out where we were going to set up, with all the ambulances. At that time I was at a comfortable distance where not much debris was landing at our feet. Occasionally debris would fall, and we’d move back another 20 yards. So I was not really in jeopardy from any debris that had been coming down.” Dr. Sherman says.
“All of the sudden I heard a deafening explosion. I looked up and I said, ‘I’m dead.’ I saw all this blackness coming down, hurtling toward us.”
“I ran about 10 yard – and I’m in clogs, brilliantly – wearing this hard hat, thank God, and I got knocked down. I had run under the South Pedestrian Bridge – the only pedestrian bridge that stayed up. It obviously had deflected most of the structural material. That’s what saved me. “Nothing structural had hit me, but I was buried in heavy ash and debris. My glasses were knocked off and I looked like I had run into Mike Tyson. I got up and walked around for about 20 minutes, I guess, in total blackness. You couldn’t see, you couldn’t breathe. I didn’t even realize I didn’t have my glasses on, but it didn’t matter, anyway.”
“By then, one ambulance person had spotted me, so he gave me some water and cleaned out my eyes and gave me gauze to cover my mouth. But he had nothing left in his ambulance because he had left the doors open, and there were 2 feet of ash inside it. We lost six ambulances that were buried,” Dr. Sherman says.
“All of the sudden I heard another explosion – it was the second tower coming down – but by this time I was away from the buildings and I saw water; I don’t know if it was the East River or the Hudson River. The paramedic took me to The New York Hospital. He wanted to take me to Bellevue, which was closer, but I said, ‘I work at the New York Hospital, and I’m not dying, I’m fine.’
“I had some minor lacerations and there was some bleeding, and I had a fractured fibula.
“The focus of any story about Sept. 11 should not be about me,” Dr. Sherman adds, “I had minor stuff. The frustrating thing is, I didn’t do anything. I got down there and tried to help, and most plastic surgeons found out there was not much at all to do.
The most reassuring aspect was that upon entry to our E.R., I was surrounded by my colleagues, all of whom had left their private practices and operating rooms to attend to the injured.
“But one interesting part – at least from a personal level – was, as I was lying there buried, I remembered that my daughter’s bat mitzvah was two weeks away, and that’s all I kept thinking about: my wife, my little girls.
“It was amazing. You figure you’re done, and then you hear the silence, and you realize you’re not, and I’m fine, and you get up and you go.
‘I saw a ring of fire’
Gerald Ginsberg, MD, is a reconstructive surgeon at New York University Downtown Hospital in Manhattan. Sept. 11 was an average day until he exited a local drug store across the street from the hospital.
“I noticed a group of people on the corner, looking up. I looked toward the twin towers and saw a ring of fire on the north tower, about 15 stories down. Some said something about a plane hitting the building, and I found myself thinking that people will make up the most outlandish stories. On the other hand, I was here in 1993 (when the WTC sustained damage from a terrorist bomb), and I knew this was some sort of disaster.
“Because of the emergency training that grew out of the 1993 bombing, I didn’t have to think; facelifts and breast augmentations would wait today. I went directly to the O.R., changed into scrubs, put on gloves and went to the front entrance to help with triage. That’s where I first met my patient, Debbie, who at that time was only known as Jane Doe No. 1.
“She was exsanguinating from an almost complete avulsion of her buttocks, rectum and lower half of her vagina. Her left heel hung by a thread and she had multi-level complex, compound fractures of both lower legs.
“Debbie was good to go to O.R. in 20 minutes. I assembled a team of two senior general surgeons (Robert Reader, MD, and Steven Brandeis, MD) to do the colostomy and mucus fistula while I did the lower extremities with the orthopedic surgeon (Nelson Botwinik, MD). We learned later that her injuries were from a fan blade from the first hijacked plane’s jet engine,” Dr. Ginsberg says.
“Debbie is finally where I can say she will make it. She’s beyond ARDS, beyond pseudomonas in the wound, and she’s extubated. Now, on rounds, she asks me how I am.
Dr. Ginsberg was able to make perhaps the most satisfying telephone call he’s ever made.
“In the recovery room, after 26 units of blood and a long surgery, the nurses pried a name and telephone number out of my patient, and then said, ‘Here Dr. Ginsberg, you call.’ I dialed, and a young man answered.
“I identified myself and asked who he was. ‘Are you missing a young woman named Debbie?’ I asked. ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, first of all, she’s alive.’ That’s when her fiancé lost it. He put on a friend to whom I gave the details. Then I explained that Debbie seemed to be asking desperately to let her mother know she was alive. The friend said she knew how to reach Debbie’s mother.
“That’s when I finally lost control and wept pretty long, and pretty hard.”