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A Word I Knew … But Didn’t Really Know.

A Word I Knew … But Didn’t Really Know.

Its a bit of a late entry, but last night I was on call for hospital, doing a 24h shift covering most of the medical patients at a local hospital. My memory of September 11 had to do with an early stage of my Medical training, so somehow the time I spent early this morning seems apropos for this post.

September 11th, 2001 — I was just starting my third year of medical school, and a part of training they call ‘clerkship’, where they place medical students in hospital for the initiation of their clinical training. ‘Clerkship’ hadn’t started in earnest, and in September there were several ‘pre-clerkship’ courses at the University to prepare us for what was ahead (a lot), so that we wouldn’t freak out and melt down (their intentions were good) within the first few weeks of our training.

On that morning, I’ll never forget hearing over the local 24h news station how two planes had flown into the World Training Centre — and the deep pit in the bottom of my stomach that was telling me that this was not an accident.

It was more.

Something ominous.

The whole day unfolded in a most surreal fashion; I had a chance to meet with the bank before classes began, and the entire banking staff were crowded around a small television, which was focusing on the coverage that morning. Later in the day, it was the only thing that my classmates were buzzing about; during class breaks in the student lounge the televsion was similarly focused on this event, with the TV anchors scraping together pieces of information — ANY information on the tragedy of the day. It was an accident. No, it was a terrorist attack. There were other attacks around the States. One was in DC. The Pentagon was hit. No, there was a plane crash instead.

… and so on.

But what I’ll never forget is a conversation I had with a mate that day.

Sometimes the perception of clerkship is that of being a skut monkey — you don’t actually do real medicine, but you put in the hours doing jobs that your other more senior colleagues (residents and so on) would never do. Chase down x-rays. Ordering tests. Doing prostate exams. That sort of thing.

He said after watching coverage on the ground — after one of the Towers had fallen, and watching EMS workers milling around trying to help the hurt, bleeding and wounded — he said,

“You know, Tony. If we were medical students down in New York, we’d be there right now. In the thick of things. Doing REAL medicine.”

Now, I don’t know if that’s the case — if medical students were involved in helping out at Ground Zero on Day Zero. But I remember thinking, “wow … I guess we might be”. Which was quickly followed by intense, gut wrenching fear.

There were people who had died already. I knew more would die that day.

Some EMS people were going to be part of that death toll.

They would have loved ones, families, children, fathers and mothers who would all be devastated by their loss.

If I were down there — would I have the courage to roll up my sleeves and my my own life on the line to help others? The Hippocratic Oath never mentioned anything about that!

I remember feeling embarassing gut-wrenching cowardice that day. Because I didn’t know if I would be able to do it.

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And I think in the days, months and years following the tragedy, I began to realize the absolutely heroic levels of courage of the EMS personnel there on the ground.


A word people in my Generation didn’t really know with any familiarity.

Draped in our post-modern cynicism, life had been good and we’d never really known the profound sadness and loss of other generations. There had been no collective memory of sacrifice — of real courage in the face of profound danger.
I still don’t know what I would have done if I were down there in the thick of things. I’d like to think that I woud have done the right thing … would have ran into the danger to help those in need. Right into the fire, smoke, and threat of limb-crushing death.

But, regardless of what I would or wouldn’t have done — there were those that already did. And some died for it. And on that day and in days afterwards, the words “heroes”, and “courage” have been used to the point, perhaps, of being hackneyed cliches suitable for syrupy pop songs.

But on that day, with the example of those on the ground at NYC with the towers literally crumbling around their ears, I realized with a sense of profound and deep respect, what it really meant to have courage.

To all the EMS works, paramedics, nurses or doctors who may have lost their life in the 9/11 tragedy I salute you. Your sacrifice will never be forgotten.

Dr. Tony Hung is a blogger whose home is over at DeepJiveInterests.

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