We’re dying. When I say we, I mean those of us who worked EMS in NYC during the time of 9/11. That doesn’t include me, as I had already moved out of NYC two years earlier. That I also happened to be down in NYC that day, due to being at a former paramedic partner’s wedding a few days earlier is inconsequential. However, on that day, and in the years hence, our numbers have been thinned precipitously, mainly in those years hence. The horrors of that day keep taking and taking. All many of us can simply do now is wait and watch to see who will be next, as it seems as though weekly – at some times daily – comes the news that another one of us has died of a 9/11 related illness.
On September 1st, a few weeks before the time of this writing, it claimed one of my best friends, Ray Thielke.
I was sitting in my dialysis chair when I found out. It was as though I had a knife driven through me. Ray had been admitted into the hospital here in Syracuse about a week or so earlier with symptoms he had before, related in part to the leukemia and COPD he developed from working on the pile.* It was complicated by his cardiac issues from a long ago battle with Hodgkin’s Disease, that he beat, but whose radiation treatments did damage to his heart. I thought that he’d simply get through it like he did numerous times in the past. Then, his wife told me he was in kidney failure, and was getting emergency dialysis. Somewhere deep inside, I knew he was in a lot of trouble as this had never happened before. I still held out hope. It was dashed faster than I could have thought.
Ray and I struggled through our respective illnesses, doctor visits, and hospitalizations. We had a system set up, so that when one of us went into the hospital, we’d text the other one with, “Tag, you’re it!” It got to a point when were we were in so much, we called ourselves “The HMO Twins.” We’d laugh at it. It was our ability to laugh at some of the absurdities of our situations that got us through it. Now, learning that he died, all I could do was cry.
Ray was beloved not only by his NYC EMS family, but by his local EMS and law enforcement family here in central NY state. He was well known as both a provider, and instructor, and from his time with the NY State Department of Health’s EMS bureau. The outpouring of grief from both communities was palpable. He was lain out in his local EMS uniform at his wake. I put in the white NYC paramedic patch we both wore in his casket, taken from one of my old uniforms.
No more than a week later, another 9/11 death came across the Facebook EMS boards. In an article a few weeks prior, it was noted that the total number of post 9/11 deaths would surpass the actual number of those killed that day. This includes those who were first responders, and those who were simply in or near the Trade Center that day.
There is no telling who will be claimed next. We try not to think about it. Just a week before I wrote this, there was a huge reunion of those who worked EMS prior to the FDNY merger in 1996. It was held on the grounds of the EMS Academy in Queens, at Ft. Totten. It was in part organized so that we who remain could gather at a happy occasion instead of seeing each other at funerals. I drove down from Syracuse, and both my brother and I attended. It was an incredible, uplifting experience. The joy at seeing old friends, colleagues, and instructors was highly satisfying.
9/11 was our St. David’s Day. Even for those who weren’t there, we are still part of that band of brothers and sisters who fought, and who continue on the job, from now will be remembered.
*(For those who are not aware, “the pile” is the term used by those who were actually working at the Trade Center. Not Ground Zero, but, the pile.)