The World Trade Center Health Program will now provide treatment and compensation for first responders from 9/11 victims who were diagnosed with cancer after inhaling toxic dust at Ground Zero, program administrator Dr. John Howard announced Monday. But many first responders say they consider the expansion bittersweet.
Cancer had not previously been part of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which set aside $4.3 billion to treat and otherwise compensate 9/11 victims. It included asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome and lower back pain, but not cancers because the cancer link to the dust cloud and debris that hung over lower Manhattan was unclear.
"They're only about ten years too late," said Jeffrey Stroehlein, who retired from the New York Fire Department in May 2011, two months after he was diagnosed with a type of brain cancer that affects the central nervous system. "I'm watching people die of these diseases, these ailments, as they go on and play ping pong," he said of government officials arguing over whether cancer should be included in Zadroga Act coverage.
Stroehlein began having headaches nearly ten years after he worked at Ground Zero, clearing debris with the rest of the first responders after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. He was diagnosed with cancer in March 2011, and underwent chemotherapy every other week for 14 weeks, followed by an intense 8-day round of chemo.
"It's kind of scary I was one of the lucky ones," he said.
Stroehlein said his highest cancer-related bill to date was more than $220,000, and he couldn't imagine what a first responder would do without good health coverage, which he was fortunate enough to have. But the Zadroga Act would not have been able to pay for his treatment because cancer wasn't covered.
Stroehlein's last four MRIs have shown no signs of the cancer, but he doesn't like to use the phrase "cancer-free."
"I'm just a piece of the puzzle, one of thousands of first responders," he said, adding that he thinks some people probably had to foreclose on their homes to pay for cancer treatment. "Who's going to get your house back? ... Most people don't have that money lying around."
Tom Neal, a now-retired New York Police Department detective, says he's lucky his wife convinced him to purchase a smart health care plan, which covered the doctors he needed to treat his cancer. "I may be the president of the house, but my wife is the CEO."
Neal worked on the first floor of police headquarters in downtown Manhattan on 9/11. He said he heard an early bulletin about the attack on the radio and was able see the first World Trade Center tower on fire from the back of the NYPD building. And then there was the dust cloud that included asbestos, lead, glass, metal and other toxins.
"People were coming back to the headquarters, and it was all throughout the building and on all the floors," he said of the dust.
Neal said NYPD headquarters' air conditioning and heating system vents weren't cleaned until 2005, so while he sat at his desk processing DNA to help identify victims, he was breathing in carcinogens for years. He began having sinus and breathing problems as early as 2002, and doctors found a tumor in 2010 between his eyes that grew into the frontal lobe of his brain.