A Slow Recovery
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
HEALTH CARE WORKER: While you’re in the wheelchair, you need to move your ankle up and down quite a bit.
SUSAN DENTZER: A month has passed since the terrorist attacks, but for survivors like Fasana Mututanont, many of the wounds have barely begun to heal… Heal.
HEALTH CARE WORKER: We thought the swelling would go down if we loosened her skin graft a little bit.
SUSAN DENTZER: Mututanont is 48 and a citizen of Thailand. She heads the New York office of a Thai government agency that was located at the World Trade Center. She was just arriving for work and in the lobby when the first of the Trade Centers’ two towers was hit.
VASANA MUTUTANONT, Burn Victim: Everybody heard the explosion you know,, “boom, boom,” something like that, and then we kind of stopped and said, “what?”
SUSAN DENTZER: Mututanont ran out of the building then fell after flying glass sliced through a tendon in her leg. A wall of fire followed her outside.
VASANA MUTUTANONT: Swept to my back from my feet up and then I see fire all over, in my hair, also. A lot of people just blew away, you know, like that.
SUSAN DENTZER: As more than 5,000 people perished that day, more than 2,000 others, like Mututanont were treated at area hospitals she was one of 25 seriously burned patients who eventually ended up at the Burn Center here at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center.
HEALTH CARE WORKER: Scoot back, relax.
SUSAN DENTZER: Mututanont had second- and third-degree burns over 40 percent of her body. As a result, she’s had a series of operations to transplant some of her own skin from her stomach to the burned areas of her body. Now she’s undergoing painful physical therapy.
VASANA MUTUTANONT: Don’t push me.
HEALTH CARE WORKER: I’m just looking, okay?
SUSAN DENTZER: As with most serious burn victims, it’s likely that Mututanont will have to undergo such therapy for years. Trauma surgeon, Dr. Roger Yurt directs the Burn Center.
DR. ROGER YURT, Burn Center, New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center: Once you’re burned, it’s really a lifelong process that you go through. The first year is fairly intense rehabilitation, wound management is important during that period of time. But really, for the rest of your life, from a physical standpoint but also frequently from a psychological standpoint.
SUSAN DENTZER: And that psychological recovery will also be a long process for the survivors and their families, like Mututanont’s husband and four children. Sixteen-year-old daughter Nissa now visits her in the hospital daily. But her younger children — ages thirteen and ten — have come only once.
VASANA MUTUTANONT: The first time they came, they… they’re not eating after that — and quiet, act differently, you know? So my husband say they might not be ready, and sometimes he asks whether they want to come back and see mommy, and they say, “no, I don’t want. I want to call her.”
SUSAN DENTZER: The 14 patients still here at Weill Cornell’s Burn Center draw support from thousands of cards and letters that have poured in. And for some, like Mary Jos, just talking about their experience, no matter how horrible, seems to help.
Jos, who’s 53 and is shown here in a recent family photo, managed a New York state office at Two World Trade Center. After the neighboring tower was hit, she and some colleagues left their office on the 86th floor and headed downward. Then their tower was struck.
MARY JOS, Burn Victim: It was hit. I didn’t know at that time I was hit by shrapnel or whatever was flying. I turned and I knew this stuff was on me. I shook it off, I looked back and I saw flames, and I said to myself “I’m not going to die here.”
SUSAN DENTZER: The shrapnel tore off flesh on Jos’ left arm, as well as on a leg. She headed for a stairway and asked a young man there for help.
MARY JOS: All I know is his name was Eric, and I looked at him and I said, “Can you help me?” And he literally helped me down 77 flights of stairs, kept me very, very focused, kept talking about my family, about this or trying to have me not look at how I was wounded. And got me all the way down to the concourse, through the concourse and out to the paramedics.
SUSAN DENTZER: Jos never saw Eric again and doesn’t know if he survived. As an ambulance ferried her away from the building, the tower crumbled. About 40 of her co-workers and numerous others of her friends in the building were killed.
MARY JOS: That’s hard, when I start thinking about them, that’s really hard, because they’re not found, they are still missing. That gets emotional.
SUSAN DENTZER: Like Mututanont, Jos also suffered third-degree burns that required extensive skin grafts and surgery. She left the hospital for a hotel with her husband David a few days ago. Access to their own apartment, located near the World Trade Center has been closed off for now.
DAVID JOS, Husband: We had dreams, and those dreams were pretty well bashed up, okay? But we’re going to go back and we’re going to rebuild them. We’re going to… We’re going to get through this. We’re lucky that we’ve got each other and we can do that. Some people don’t, so…
SUSAN DENTZER: Among other things, Mary Jos now expects to receive ongoing psychological therapy as part of the recovery process.
MARY JOS: There’s no closure. It’s still hurtful. It’s still hurtful. I’m alive. Like I said, I’ll survive. But my friends and the other almost 6,000 people and their families, they don’t have anybody. And that’s hard.
SUSAN DENTZER: Both Jos and Mututanont are participating in a clinical study at Weill Cornell. It’s examining the psychological trauma suffered by burn victims, including those who survived the September 11 attack.