Most of us didn't know the people who died on Sept. 11, 2001. We never saw them as friends, as neighbors, as family. We never knew them during their lives. To most of us, the victims are photos, names and abstractions.
To those who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center collapse, the Pentagon impact or the Pennsylvania crash, I am sorry. You deserve all the best in this world, all the consideration we can give. But we cannot mourn like you or with you because we are not you. We do not know what you know, feel what you feel. Only the death of someone we know can impact us in that way.
Up Close & Personal
For me, a tower crumbled last month when we lost Rob Woisard, the clinical coordinator of EVAC Ambulance here in Daytona Beach, Fla. As both a paramedic and nurse, Rob was responsible for promoting and maintaining clinical excellence in the field through protocol development, education and quality assurance. He did the job with lan. He was also responsible for some of the longest, most arrogant, nit-picking memos I ve received in my tenure as an EMS medical director. But we eventually reached an accommodation. I realized he was right most of the time, and we found common interests in research and in lunch at Hooters (he liked the wings. Honest).
About two years ago, Rob developed a malignancy in his colon, and it spread. He didn t give up. Rob kept coming to work. Sometimes it was only half a day. When chemotherapy was bad, he might be out for a week. But he kept coming, kept doing research and contributing.
In his last e-mail to me, he said we really should have lunch. Actually, it was a one-word e-mail. "HOOTERS!" I was busy with work and travel and never got to it. Then one Saturday Rob said he was tired, lay down to take a nap and was gone. He was 44.
The funeral mass was the following week. It s amazing how funerals for the young bring folks out of the woodwork. But what really struck me was how many family members and friends Rob had. We tend to think of people only in relation to ourselves, and that view is shattered when you discover someone is part of a larger family, and most of the family has ties that you ll never match. You re also not the person s only friend, but one of many points of contact. Realizing that you re pretty far down the totem pole is a sobering experience.
During the recessional, when I saw Rob, now ashes in a pink box (he would have despised pink), in the arms of his wife, something welled up in me. It was a sense of finality, a sense of lost opportunity, a sense of an end. It s the only thing I ve ever felt at funerals. It s the sudden question I wanted answered, advice I needed, time that could have been better spent. I wasn t Rob s family or even close to his best friend. But the lost lunch, the lost conversation, the lost joke haunt me.
A funeral is not about the dead. It s really about us (although I suspect that Rob would not mind having his virtues proclaimed). It s about what we miss, our guilt and regrets. It should be a reminder, even if just for a moment, of just how tenuous life is in this world. It should restore us to our rightful, miniscule place in the universe and force us to contemplate the nothingness before we were born, the nothingness after we die and the brief wondrous interval of life. It should drive us to achieve our goals be they for career, family or education.
I used to wonder how famous men of centuries ago could accomplish so much at an early age. I know now that it s because death was their constant companion. You had to make your impact then, whether for the glory of God or for fame s immortality. Today, death is remote, a long time away, tucked away in hospitals and nursing homes and elderly relatives living in distant places. Death is hundreds of miles away, like in New York City.
When the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, I was giving an in-service presentation. A dispatch officer in the station came in and told us to turn on the television. We turned it on to see one of the towers aflame. A few minutes later, we saw a ball of flame erupt from the other tower as the second aircraft hit.
Like everyone else, I was glued to the television for the next three days. As an EMS medical director, I learned about local investigations. Examples both true and false: A car was found at the airport loaded with bin Laden propaganda (true); one of the hijackers had received his flight training at a local university (false). Within weeks, there was interest and funding for disaster management and bioterrorism education. Along with the rest of the nation, I was intrigued by the story of Osama bin Laden, caught up in the fever of revenge and determined that it would not happen again.
Some say all politics is local; I think that death is, too. That s why, despite what I kept hearing on radio and television, I found myself strangely unaffected by the loss of life. I didn t know any of these people. They lived in a city hundreds of miles away. I felt the indignity of an attack on American soil; I felt the need to punish those responsible. But I couldn t and I tried manifest the grief or produce the tears that everyone told me I was supposed to shed.
Call me heartless if you wish. But if you didn t know anyone who was killed or injured, can you honestly say you stayed up nights wondering and worrying? Did you hold your child a little closer or tell your spouse you loved them one more time that night? Did you truly weep for those who fell, or did you put on your black mourning badge, join in the talk of revenge and carry on?
EMS is a very strange profession. An everyday companion, death loses its impact. Black humor predominates. We want people to try suicide the right way next time. We re upset when a DNR is not in place. We often hold other human beings in contempt for their own failings and for the toll those failings inflict on us.
We do feel sorrow and compassion for the innocent, especially the children. We mourn the children because we see our own children s faces in them. We grieve for those patients we came to know even for a few moments before their end came. We pity those who didn t have a chance to know them and those whose time on Earth is too short. Their deaths happen to us, before us, in our line of sight and hearing. We touched them, and they touched us.
Much has been done in the name of grief for those killed on Sept. 11. Civil liberties have been suspended, rights infringed and invasions planned and executed. Laws, rules and causes have been built on this loss. Some of this is just and proper, and some of it is not. But those who died on Sept. 11 didn t die for a cause. They died as part of life. Let the true legacy of those who perished on Sept. 11 be the preservation of America as it was for them probably flawed, perhaps too open, possibly risky but, nonetheless, the most stable, envied and participatory society on earth.
In Memoriam ...
Let us all honor our fallen Americans and colleagues in EMS in our own special ways. As for me, on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002, I m joining a few friends for lunch at Hooters. We re going to put a small sign on a wall designating the Robert Woisard Memorial Booth.