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Queens Chronicle

9/11 responder program in limbo

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Posted: Thursday, July 30, 2009 12:00 am

The only evaluation and treatment program in Queens for 9/11 responders is in jeopardy of closing if the federal government does not allocate funds soon.

“There is no new money for the program and its continuation is based on passage of the Zadroga bill,” said Lauri Boni, administrative director of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program Queens Clinical Center in Flushing. “We are in a holding pattern and will close without the money.”

The Flushing center is part of a consortium of five clinics in Manhattan, Staten Island, the Hudson Valley, Long Island and New Jersey. They are all awaiting passage of the federal bill named after a city police detective, James Zadroga, who died in 2006 at the age of 34 due to respiratory problems. He worked an estimated 450 hours at Ground Zero as part of the recovery and cleanup efforts following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

The bill would provide $12 billion over a 10-year period to guarantee testing and care of 9/11 emergency responders and would reopen the victims compensation fund. The Flushing center operates on $2.5 million a year.

Located at 163-03 Horace Harding Expressway, the facility is run by Queens College’s Center for the Biology of Natural Systems. The center began providing health monitoring exams for more than 1,000 Ground Zero workers in 2002.

Four years later, the facility received federal money to evaluate and treat 9/11 workers, police officers and other first responders to the World Trade Center area. The Fire Department has its own program.

What these workers didn’t realize was the toxic fumes and dust they inhaled at the scene would make them sick later, according to Dr. Wajdy L. Hailoo, medical director of the Flushing monitoring and treatment program. “These are very sick people suffering from a variety of chronic conditions,” Hailoo said.

Although the health conditions vary, the center has seen patients suffering from throat and sinus problems and acid reflux to mental health issues, but mostly lung and upper airway problems. Asthma is particularly high among the first responders.

The facility has seen 3,000 patients, with 20 percent treated actively. That’s about 600 people up to six times a year. Most are from Queens or Brooklyn.

One of those patients is Freddy Noboa, 55, of Glendale, a paramedic supervisor at New York Hospital Queens in Flushing when the attack occurred. He led a team of medics on 9/11 and stayed two weeks to help in the rescue and recovery operation.

Saying he was never sick a day in his life prior to the attack, he now is on full disability taking medications for various ailments including asthma, depression and diabetes. Noboa first became ill in 2003 with symptoms of asthma and later was evaluated by the program.

“If the program didn’t exist, I don’t think I’d be around,” he said. “They pay for all my medications and are fantastic; just like a family to me.”

He goes in for monitoring every 45 days and says if the federal government doesn’t fund the program, “it would be a slap in the face to the first responders. No one ever said it was toxic down there.”

Married and the father of two grown children, Noboa also suffers from depression, anxiety and anger brought on by post-traumatic stress syndrome. “Talking to the therapist helps,” he said. “I was never an angry person before; now I try not to drive because I have road rage.”

A 47-year-old Bellerose man who works for the Police Department in its motor fleet, goes to the Flushing center once a year for a physical. He asked that his name not be used.

Although the man does not suffer from any illness now, he worked on police vehicles that were at Ground Zero and were covered in dust. “The cars were so bad we had to take them apart and some we just scrapped,” he said.

The NYPD employee indicated they were only required by law to test for asbestos, not realizing there were other toxic inhalants involved. “I don’t know the long-term effects and I’m trying to be cautious; you never know,” he said.

He would hate to see the monitoring program end, calling it a really good program.

Hailoo is hopeful the funding will be approved, “because there is such a need. It is difficult to imagine patients going anywhere else for treatment since environmental exposure is not well understood by local doctors. Such patients need specialized care,” he said.

The medical director was a professor of occupational environmental medicine at Stony Brook University for 17 years and before that worked at Mt. Sinai Hospital. He calls his current work very challenging.

Hailoo believes some of the patients may require treatment for a long time. “The program provides that. There is a need indefinitely,” he said.

Boni hopes the appropriations will be passed by the fall because current funding has already expired. “It would be hard for the government to back down on this,” she said. “A commitment has to be made. You can’t just pull the plug on such patients.”

She noted that many of the patients, such as Noboa, aren’t able to work. The average age is 40 to 45.

As both Boni and Hailoo pointed out, there was a rush to clean up the World Trade Center area, yet little has been done on the site since then. “What was the rush?” she asked. “Why did it have to be cleaned up in eight months?”

They added that the federal Environmental Protection Agency said it was safe to work at Ground Zero and many workers did not wear protective gear or respirators. “There were guidelines in place but they weren’t followed,” Boni said.

Noboa, who is pretty much confined to his home because of asthma, said he did consider health factors when he was working at Ground Zero, but, “I didn’t think it would be that toxic and take ahold of me. I never thought I’d get this sick.”

He described himself at Ground Zero as covered in dust, like a snowstorm, that burned his skin. He did not wear a mask.

“Now, I feel like a prisoner. This is not the life I expected to live,” Noboa said.

The center is open Monday through Thursday. Staff members are still seeing new patients, who either didn’t know about the program or felt they didn’t need it. Some have new symptoms.

For more information on the program, call Boni at (718) 670-4191. For an appointment, call (718) 670-4216.

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