Lessons they carry: Memories of terrorism's aftershocks
■ On 9/11, first-year medical students in New York volunteered at the city morgue. A new books tells their story.
By Damon Adams — Posted Sept. 12, 2005
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Eunice Kang, MD, had two weeks of medical school behind her when terror struck New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Initially, her main concern was for a cousin who worked in one of the World Trade Center towers.
For Dr. Kang, the worst part was not knowing what happened to her cousin. Though she was new to medicine, she thought volunteering at the city medical examiner's office would help others find out what happened to their loved ones.
Her story is part of Being There, a collection of photos and interviews with students from the New York University School of Medicine who helped out at the medical examiner's morgue.
"I didn't do it to learn medicine or anatomy," said Dr. Kang, now a resident at NYU Medical Center. "I did it to feel a little more human after that experience. It was one concrete thing we could do to actually help."
Medical students, many in school less than a month, came from NYU and other schools to take part in the gruesome task of identifying the remains of victims. They mostly worked as scribes, taking notes as medical examiners, police and other officials sorted through body parts taken to the morgue.
Some students recall the faces of dead firemen and other victims who were brought in. Others remember the smell. Some said they would never look at death the same way again.
"I volunteered in the medical examiner's office because, unfortunately, that was the only place [where] help was needed," Doron Stember, MD, a medical student in 2001, wrote in an e-mail. "I've since graduated from medical school and started a surgical residency. [at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York]. The hours are long, and it sometimes seems that the ER calls every five minutes with a new patient to see. I don't get frustrated, though. I just think about how lucky it is that we're past a time when the hospital was filled with doctors, but no patients."
Barry Goldstein, MD, PhD, heard about the students' efforts and became interested in their experiences. In June 2002, he interviewed and photographed many of them. The students posed with something that helped them cope with the tragedy.
"[They were] much like young soldiers sent off to war: You have some training but nothing can prepare you for this," said Dr. Goldstein, who was in New York for NYU's Master Scholars Artist-in-Residence program at the time and is associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.
Dr. Goldstein compiled the photos and stories in Being There, which was printed in May. The foreword was written by Charles Hirsch, MD, New York City's chief medical examiner, who headed the effort to identify remains. About 800 books were given to graduating medical students at NYU, the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and other New York medical schools, Dr. Goldstein said. The Class of 2005 is the first to go all the way through medical school since the terrorist attacks occurred, and Dr. Goldstein saw the book as a way to commemorate the students' involvement.
Dr. Kang said volunteering at the morgue provided a valuable lesson.
"I came away seeing how hard people work and how well they can work together," she said.
Dr. Goldstein hopes to use the material in a traveling exhibit at medical schools. Being There is not available in stores; more information is available online (link) or by e-mail ([email protected]" target="_blank">link).