THE BLOG
09/08/2011 11:21 am ET | Updated Nov 08, 2011

9/11 Diary: Notes From a Hospital in Fly-Over Land

The Day Like No Other -- Tuesday, September 11th, 2001 -- began as a day like any other. I was a 36-year-old internist working at a large hospital in Minneapolis, and I had patients to take care of. But when the day quickly became something else, I started taking notes.

Ten years later, 9/11 has come to mean a lot of things, but at that moment it was just the thing itself: we were being bludgeoned with our own fists by an unknown, unseen assailant, and all we could do was take the punch. The images were everywhere, the information nowhere. Here's a record of my day on that day -- it may have been something like yours.

The early morning air was warm like summer, but clean like fall. Even my aging bicycle seemed invigorated as I rolled up to the hospital, stowed it in the bike cage, and walked over to the staff entrance. I took the second of two hallway turns just as Gordy Aamoth, an orthopedist, was leaving the doctors' lounge.

But he didn't look good. He seemed to stagger out the doorway, stumbling for a step or two before regaining his stride, then stepping out into the main hallway to disappear from view. Figuring he must be nursing a bad ankle or knee, I almost joked with him that he should find himself a good orthopedist. But he hadn't seen me, and the moment passed.

Instead I ducked into the doctors' lounge to begin my usual routine -- grabbing a printout of our group's patients and looking around for any of my fellow internists. I quickly found two colleagues, Whitney and Mary, and they asked if I'd heard the news: someone had flown a plane into the World Trade Center (the towers were, to many, still one building). No I hadn't. And for just that moment, it seemed like another Good Morning America news flash -- some desperate soul in a Cessna, exiting this world for the next in a dramatic suicide gesture. I just hoped he didn't take anyone with him.

But something about Mary and Whitney's faces sent me walking back to the TV-covey portion of the lounge, where I was greeted by the image of a gaping, burning, distinctly un-Cessna-sized hole in the side of Tower One.

Part of the art of medicine is recognizing patterns of illnesses, and conversely, recognizing patterns that don't fit. Watching the thick black smoke seething up into a shimmering blue sky, there was something about this pattern that didn't seem to fit. You could scratch the desperado Cessna idea -- the hole was just too big. And how could a pilot capable of flying an aircraft of that size and sophistication be incapable of ditching it anywhere but right into the side of one of the World Trade Center towers?

This seemed bigger than I had initially imagined. Much bigger. Watching the images you could see that anyone in the upper floors would have a hard time surviving the heat and smoke. We stood there and gawked, not sure what to say, feeling like our shoes were welded to the carpet but that our feet couldn't sit still.

I'm not sure if it happened live, while I was watching (you couldn't tell which shots were live and which ones were being replayed because the networks were as reeling and dumbfounded as the rest of us) but suddenly there it was: a monstrous Hollywood-type explosion out of the backside of the second tower. They said it was a second plane. My God, this was serious, really serious. A quick look at the faces crammed into the normally sparsely-populated lounge, and it was dead wood, like the death masks some societies cast of the departed. One had the feeling that we'd be watching a lot of television that day.

Routine being a comfort, Whitney, Mary and I eventually decide to stick to it, so we left the TV area and sat down at a table to divide up our list of patients. But the conversation inevitably drifted back to the television, and Mary mentioned that Dr. Aamoth's son worked on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center -- she didn't know which building. My mind instantly replayed the clip of Gordy staggering out the door. Obviously he'd been watching the TV. I swallowed hard at horror two steps removed. Where was Gordy dragging himself off to when I saw him? Most orthopedists start their day in the operating room, but I couldn't imagine he was headed that way. If I ran into him again, I would not know what to say.

With the lists done I grabbed some oatmeal and went back, again, to watch the TV. Already time was becoming relative: I knew I wouldn't be late for anything today. Seeing how the hospital routinely slides into a self-induced trance during a Vikings football game, my pager going ghostly silent, whatever was playing out in Manhattan would trump all that. I could make my way up to the floors, to the patients, when I was ready.

Meanwhile the ghastly TV images continued to roll, a montage of horror that quickly grew as the networks picked up different videotape of the disaster from varying perspectives. People jumping from the heat and smoke was absolute terror defined. The adrenaline buzz was wearing off. I lost my appetite. I left the lounge.

Everywhere I went -- every hallway, elevator, nursing station, patient room -- everywhere it was blank looks, emptiness, nothing to say. Perhaps shock is the absence of all emotion. I didn't feel anything and I didn't feel like doing anything, but I knew, eventually, I had to take care of my patients. I needed to make rounds.

But first I grabbed a phone and called my wife to see if she knew. She did, and it was good to hear her voice.

The Pentagon has been hit, and this thing is beginning to unfold as a coordinated attack. It dawned on me that hospitals have more TV's than IV poles. The screens are everywhere and today they're all on. The combination of compelling images and universal access meant you could not not watch TV. Hearing that one of the towers had collapsed, I headed back to the doctors' lounge.

It was crowded by then, and I stood next to Jim, a pathologist, and it seemed to us that America had changed for good. I was pretty certain that I was standing in my generation's Pearl Harbor. They replayed the footage of Tower Two collapsing, and the image became the final punch -- the sickening, stunned feeling had now taken its full effect. What was hard to understand was now incomprehensible. A woman I did not recognize and have not seen since hustled into the lounge saying that her husband heard on the radio that the Sears Tower in Chicago had been hit. I stuck around to see if this was true, if it even could be true. Nothing.

I finally headed upstairs to see patients, starting with Nick Rubek on our rehabilitation floor. A WWII vet who survived the last year-and-a-half of the war in Europe, Mr. Rubek had the bars pinned on him when they ran out of officers. Now he was fighting severe rheumatoid arthritis. He didn't have much to say, never did, but shook his head at the images on TV. I'm sure he was wondering if the big war he wandered into could happen again. A friend of his was standing outside the door, waiting for me to leave. He introduced himself as an old VA doc, and said, "This is war, we're going after him," him being "Aslama Ben Ladin." The name of terror was so new that we didn't have it quite right.

I found a seat to write a note and some orders for Mr. Rubek. Gloria, a favorite nurse of mine, sat down quietly beside me and said, "Well, this puts any of our little troubles into perspective." Her daughter had just had a portion of her pelvis removed for a rare and difficult-to-cure bone cancer.

Having seen just one patient, it was back to the lounge. Claus, my unflappable, inimitable German-born professor of medicine had arrived and asked, simply, what good could come of all this. He suggested that it might show us that we can't turn our backs on the world.

If I wasn't staring at a TV, I found the images following me around in my head.

A TV announced the collapse of Tower One, its antennaed steeple disappearing into the blackness as I imagined the conning tower of the Titanic did. Oh God, watch the casualties rise now, to include all the rescuers who rushed in to help. An interview with a former FBI director pointed out that this occurred, in part, because of the personal freedoms that we are granted here. Thousands of people arrive here every day, and we have no way to stop them.

Our lives have changed. Our freedoms have changed.

I heard rumors of a car bomb in D.C..

The hallways were still filled with blank looks and the absence of sound.

I went to see elderly Margaret Stordahl, who was suffering from a painful compression fracture in her spine. I entered the room by telling her, "I'd like to say 'good morning' but there isn't much good about it."

"Yes, you could say that," she replied. She had tears in her eyes, and I thought to myself, "Boy, she's feeling this tragedy quite deeply."

"They say they can't do anything about it, I'm stuck this way," she added.

It took me a few moments to realize she was talking about her back pain, not the World Trade Center. In fact, I couldn't tell if she knew anything about the tragedy. Hers may have been the only TV in the entire hospital, or nation, that wasn't turned on. I didn't ask if she had heard the news. She'd had enough pain.

In the hallway a nurse asked me, "Why do we think we're so invincible?"

There was a rogue airplane somewhere over Pittsburgh.

Be it crisis fatigue or the search for a distraction, the work tempo slowly began to increase. People were talking more.

On the neurology ward, Mike Roche, a paraplegic from advanced multiple sclerosis, pointed to his watch and asked me, "Do you think there's anything coincidental about this happening on this date?" His watch showed "9-11" "What?" I asked him, not getting the clue. "9-1-1," he tapped out on his watch face. "Hmmm, I doubt it," I thought to myself. I didn't answer him.

There were fighter jets over D.C., protecting the airspace. Bush spoke earlier in Florida. People were wondering where he went after that, and if he was okay.

At 11:30 a.m. the director of communications at our hospital posted updates stating that the Mall of America and the IDS Tower had been closed. It identified the specific planes that were kidnapped.

I talked to my wife again, who heard reports that there was one plane down in Seattle, and one down in Philadelphia. She'd been explaining the images to our three-year-old by saying that there had been a bad accident, and that it was a sad day. "But I don't want it to be a sad day!" he cried defiantly.

The name "Islama Benladin" came up again.

At lunch it was Karen, Bob, Mitch and me at a table, and the usually jovial Mitch threw me an exhausted look, saying, "Craig, what is there to say? My mind is blank. I can't think of anything to say." That is, there was nothing to say that would make sense of it all. But by that time of the day, we had a lot on our minds.

Mitch pointed out how this would reach nearly everyone: "Everyone will know someone killed in this thing." Being Jewish and having been to Israel, he said this kind of thing happens there on a smaller scale nearly every day, and he reminded us that in Israel, everyone does military service right out of high school. Bob, a gastroenterologist, said, "This will bring a level of fear into our lives that will never go away." It sounded dramatic, but probably true.

After lunch it was another stop at the doctors' lounge TV. They were showing a new video clip of the second plane boring through the tower, this time from the harbor side. Wow. Multiple views, multiple angles, viewed multiple times, and it still did not seem real.

Tom Brokaw agreed with the VA doc up on rehab, calling it war. A senator said, "We're in a war without borders," but of course war has been coloring outside the lines for decades now--it just hadn't scribbled into ours.

Overhead they announced a 3:15 prayer service downstairs.

The day went on. Thankfully the TV had nothing new to say. The venom had been spent. We kept working. I hit the doctor's lounge one more time for the 5:30 news -- still nothing new. It was as bad as it looked. Worse maybe. The country gasped.

I walked out, grabbed my bike, and rode home through a perfectly blue and perfectly empty sky. All flights had been grounded. I hadn't felt personally threatened today -- the Midwest "fly-over" portion of the country we live in lacks any marquee-status buildings -- but it felt good to be home, to see Steph and the boys.

The local news essentially rebroadcast network video footage from the day. There were only two local stories. One about a Twin Cities woman whose son, a pilot, was among the passengers who tried in vain to retake one of the hijacked planes. The second story talked about people hoarding gas. Some gas stations responded by jacking the prices up to $4 a gallon. The only thing we have to fear is fearful gas prices. It is too soon to know what we will come to know, that Gordy Aamoth's son lies sanctified amidst the Jet-A rubble of Tower Two.

A neighbor woman about my age comes by to say she spent the day making phone calls to check on her people. She has friends who had a beer with some truckers who ship petroleum, and they think we might run out. She suggests we go out and at least top off. She sounds like she's been crying. She sounds like she's been drinking. She says she loves us as she walks off down the sidewalk and into the night.

Yes, we say. It's a good night to love your neighbor.