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Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program

Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program clinic. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

Dr. Benjamin Luft remembers the feeling of being prepared to treat 9/11 survivors and then no one arrived at the hospital.

Dr. Benjamin Luft is the director and principal investigator at Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

Stony Brook University was among local medical facilities that were prepared for the arrival of 9/11 victims when Luft was the chairman of the Department of Medicine. He said, like others, he had seen the towers falling on television, and from the 16th floor of SBU’s Health Sciences Tower, he could see the smoke from the World Trade Center.

“The idea was that there was going to be real mass casualties, and that this would overwhelm the system in New York,” he said.

Medical teams from various departments met in the conference room of the Department of Medicine, but he said “it became obvious as time went on, that there was no one coming to Stony Brook.”

“It was eerily ominous, because we began to understand that either people had escaped the buildings, or … that there were relatively few survivors from the attack itself,” the doctor added.

He said anyone seeking treatment stayed in the city, and the hospitals in Manhattan weren’t overrun as originally anticipated.

Luft, who is now the director and principal investigator at Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program, said after the tragic day he visited Ground Zero to see what was happening at the site. It was there he witnessed what first responders were being exposed to while working.

“It was obvious that there was going to be a lot of responders that were going to become ill as a result of that, because there was a tremendous amount of dusts and toxins in the air,” Luft said. “There was a lot of fire, burning, and there was a lot of fumes that came off of burning plastic and electronics.”

He added there were traumatizing events that people at the site experienced such as seeing bloody human parts and, for earlier responders, people jumping out of the towers.

He said shortly after September 11, local labor leaders met with him and told him how many of those first responders lived on Long Island and were getting sick. He learned that while many were insured, their insurance wasn’t covering their health issues due to them volunteering and not doing what the insurance companies considered on-the-clock work while helping to clean up and recover victims at Ground Zero.

The struggle of the Long Island first responders led to the development of the Stony Brook WTC Wellness program. In 2002, patients at first were just screened and monitored and then in 2005 doctors began treating them. Luft said in the early days of the program SBU Department of Medicine employees would volunteer to treat the patients. Over time the program began to receive financial resources to expand its services.

The Suffolk location of the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program is located on Commack Road in Commack. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

Luft said the program follows the cases of approximately 13,000 Long Islanders in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, with one clinic in Commack and the other in Mineola. At first, patients were displaying acute reactions to their exposure. Cases included asthma, upper respiratory disease, sinusitis and gastrointestinal disease, he said, due to the amounts of dust the patients had taken in during their time at Ground Zero.

Over the years, the doctor said patients began developing illnesses such as cancer, but doctors have also seen psychiatric problems such as PTSD and depression.

The responders “had seen people die,” he said. “They were in danger all the time.”

Doctors are also seeing cases of dementia in patients. Luft said one theory is that when a person is exposed to certain toxins it can increase their chances of having dementia. He gave the example where areas with higher pollution have much higher rates of Alzheimer’s.

With studies showing that patients with PTSD have cells that age more quickly, the WTC Wellness Program began monitoring patients.

“We saw something that stunned us, and quite frankly at first we were very skeptical,” Luft said. “We went through a variety of different studies and tests to confirm our results.”

Twenty years after September 11, the doctor said it’s possible that first responders will present with more health issues in the future, but no one can be certain with what illnesses.

The Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program’s Suffolk County office is located at 500 Commack Road, Commack.

New one-stop clinic opens in Commack to provide care for 9/11 first responders

First responder John Feal gets a checkup at the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program center, which opened a new facility in Commack, Nov. 28. Photo from Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program website

Accessing medical treatment on Long Island has become easier for 9/11 first responders.

Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program celebrated the official opening of its new one-stop health clinic in Commack Nov. 28. The program relocated from Islandia to the Stony Brook Medicine Advanced Specialty Care building, located at 500 Commack Road. The move allowed the program to expand from a monitoring facility into a 20,000-square-foot, integrative clinic where World Trade Center responders can receive more comprehensive medical treatment under one roof.

Dr. Benjamin Luft, program director and principal investigator, said the clinic is dedicated to caring for approximately 10,000 patients suffering from illnesses after volunteering at Ground Zero after 9/11. He said the responders suffer from a wide variety of conditions and the new location will provide the medical staff more resources. Among the new services available will be blood testing and imaging, which weren’t available in Islandia and caused patients to have to go elsewhere.

“This is ideal for the World Trade responder patient population, and the reason why is these patients who have been so severely affected by the World Trade Center disaster have a compendium of various abnormalities and disorders which are directly related to 9/11,” Luft said. “These included diseases ranging from psychiatry diseases to respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, to cancer.”

“The program is now a state-of-the-art facility that not only monitors you, but treats you and gives you top-notch medical care all in one facility.”

— John Feal

The doctor said the program has a research team dedicated to studying neurocognitive problems, autoimmune issues and cancer-related illness. The new Commack location has an in-house laboratory that will make accessing patients’ samples and processing them easier. He said many of the illnesses related to the disaster were not initially recognized, and the number of patients has grown approximately 8 to 10 percent each year since the monitoring clinic first opened on the Stony Brook University campus shortly after 9/11.

The day of the Commack grand opening, the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program honored John Feal, a first responder and founder of the Fealgood Foundation. A Nesconset resident and Commack native, he said having the clinic where he grew up is special to him. Feal and members of his organization worked tirelessly to get the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act passed in Dec. 2010 and again in 2015. The act enables first responders, volunteers and survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks to receive health monitoring and financial aid.

Luft said at first the program treated many patients who lacked medical insurance coverage. “So when they got sick, they didn’t have health insurance or have someone to take care of their acute problems,” he said. “We established our clinic to do that at no additional costs to the patients.”

Feal, who was a patient at the Islandia clinic and recently had his physical in Commack, said he was impressed with the new location.

“The program is now a state-of-the-art facility that not only monitors you, but treats you and gives you top-notch medical care all in one facility,” Feal said.

He said having a one-stop clinic is important to many, especially for those who have become too frail to travel. Aging is an issue as many are now in their mid-50s or older.

“As we get further away from 9/11, the illnesses are getting worse,” Feal said. “One, because of age and, two, because with these illnesses, some latency periods and manifestations in the body take this long.”

The first responder said it was humbling to be honored for his work Nov. 28.

“We’re talking about human life, and I’m never going to apologize for anything I ever said or did, because at the end of the day I only care about helping those who are sick from 9/11,” Feal said. “And so many people are getting sick. It’s not ending anytime soon.”