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Alicia Salzer, M.D. Headshot

September 11th: Honoring the Heroic Spirit of the Human Heart

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For several months after 9/11 I volunteered as a psychiatrist at Ground Zero. I spent long nights walking around the tangled and still-smoking site, pausing amidst groups of iron workers and firefighters to chat and then move on.

I use the word chat because our conversations were characterized by a silent code: keep it pseudo-lite. We rarely spoke of the elephant in the room -- the fear, the loss, the lack of the living. There was work to be done, and no one cared to feel more overwhelmed than he already did. Instead we spoke of cranes and wet socks and wives at home. We talked about the kindness being shown to us, the outpouring of support, the letters from kids all over the country.

Everywhere workers supported and comforted each other by encouraging each other to partake of the services being offered. "Hey, there's hot food in the hotel, you should go eat." "They've got hot coffee and music in a boat on the river, it's nice, go take a break for ten minutes." "They've got people giving free massages in the college... they have long underwear... there are phones so you can call your family." But everyone was reluctant to partake of this kindness. The guys understood, this was how people show their support, this was people's way of saying thanks. But still... they felt it was a reward that they had not yet earned. It felt wrong to be basking in generosity when there was so much work to be done. For many, being hailed as a hero felt like fraud.

When my work for the night was done I would remove my gear, the hard hat, the respiratory filter mask, the filthy boots -- hardly the typical garb of a shrink -- and crawl exhausted into my car. Upon leaving the site there was a rinsing station, a makeshift car wash where men and women with fire-hoses pelted the ash off my Xterra with a force that could rip the trim off your doors. Participation was not voluntary. I suppose it was about decontamination, I never knew for sure what the purpose was, but I recall distinctly at 4 a.m. the dizzy, deafening way it felt to sit in the trembling cocoon of my car with my windows up, my windshield obscured, while chaos rained outside. It was then that I would first notice how cold I was, how tired I was and how surreal everything suddenly seemed.

When they were done there was a sudden silence. Re-entry. Back to the Manhattan that I recognized. There was always a small cluster of people gathered at the transition between the Ground Zero world and the 'rest of the city.' Whoever these people were, they were so moved by the efforts of those who worked at Ground Zero that they stood in the dark night after night, week after week, waiting for any wet, newly rinsed car that rolled up the west side highway so that they could cheer and wave their homemade signs. "Thank You Heroes." Whoever they were, they never failed to make me cry. I was no hero, but this was hard. The hardest thing I ever did: to function as a professional while hurting as a human. Like everyone who worked there, I was scared, I was angry, I was struggling daily to rekindle a sense of hope.

In the years that followed, I continued to work full time with Ground Zero rescue workers and volunteers. Several of them were men who have been hailed as heroes of 9/11. Their faces were the faces America saw in magazines. Almost universally, they expressed discomfort with being honored. "A hero is the guy who emerges from a burning building with a rescued baby in his arms," they told me again and again. None of them had, despite their very best attempts, rescued anyone.

As the ten-year anniversary of September 11th approaches, I see my city poised to remember, to mourn, and when they are done, to comfort themselves by paying tribute to the dignity of those who helped -- and continue to help -- make the world seem less evil. It is one of the things I most admire about the human spirit. We have a natural inclination to right ourselves when tipped. We have a tendency to look for evidence of the good in people, even at the very moment when unimaginable potential for evil has evidenced itself.

Along with a group of other doctors I am opening a medical facility on the edge of the World Trade Center site. For me it is a wonderful full circle to come from a place where all I could offer medically was the amorphous assistance of compassion and companionship, to a place where I can be a part of something so concretely beneficial. Last week I stood at our front door in the bright light of a post-Hurricane-Irene financial district and looked up at the shining new towers rising on the site that once was Ground Zero and I felt a flood of gratitude again for the people who have not stopped working there for the last decade. The electricians, the iron workers, the engineers, the architects... all heroes in my eyes.

I wonder about the guys I used to know 10 years ago... do they still feel discomfort at being hailed as heroes? As a psychiatrist it was more my job to help them give voice to their conflict than to convince them that they were. If I had it to do over again, when I heard someone say, "We are not heroes," I would have answered, "Yes you are; we all are."

Here is the thing about the rescue workers that I knew: every day that they stepped out on the job they were engaged in active combat in a war-zone of emotions where everything conspired to make them feel helpless. Yet they emerged out of that hailstorm of emotions with themselves intact. They bore witness to things others could not. They were able to go on in spite of their grief. They were able to muster belief long enough to get dressed and go to work -- all this in spite of a reality that threatened to crush them. This is what a hero does. Sometimes he rescues someone else; sometimes he rescues himself.

It is only now a decade later that I look at my fellow New Yorkers with this new insight. My feelings are summed up by the iconic 9/11 inspired art of Milton Glaser, "I ♥ NY... more than ever." We have had a collective experience. A shared tragedy. A life altering threat to our sense of country, our sense of safety. A common loss. But like the rescue workers who so touched my heart with their strength and determination, we have all done something heroic. We have put one foot in front of the other and moved forward.