A survivor’s fight for health care for young adults impacted by 9/11

On the day the two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, Lila Nordstrom, then a senior at Stuyvesant High School, was ordered to evacuate. Now a public health advocate and executive director of StuyHealth, which focuses on young adult survivors of 9/11, she is also the co-author of “Some Kids Left Behind: A Survivor’s Fight for Health Care in The Wake of 9/11.”

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When two commercial airliners crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, approximately 3,300 students had settled into their desks at Stuyvesant High School. It is located just blocks away, in the shadow of what were the twin towers.

    Lila Nordstrom was a senior who was instructed to evacuate that day. Today she is a public health advocate and executive director of Stuy-Health, focusing on young adults in the 9/11 survivor community. She's also the author of "Some Kids Left Behind: a Survivor's Fight for Health Care in the Wake of 9/11."

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It seems that there was pre-9/11 and post-9/11 kind of bisecting your existence.

  • Lila Nordstrom:

    That was a transformational moment for everyone in America because our understanding of just how safe we were and what our life would be changed forever on 9/11.

    But I think specifically in my case, like it also changed my relationship to political systems. It changed my relationship to political authority. It was really the first time that I had been failed by a government authority on that kind of massive scale. And it kind of reoriented my life.

    You know, I've always been interested in politics. It reoriented my life away from, you know, thoughts like I might go into politics and I might want to run for office. And I I kind of embraced being an advocate and an activist after that because I felt like that was really where I had the power to actually make some change and speak up about some things that, you know, were were actually failures on the part of the government. And we're not something that had been actively done.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I mean, you were lobbying on the Hill with Jon Stewart and others, but you weren't the first responder, right? You weren't the sort of archetype that we have for who suffered on 9/11. Our kind of definition was a bit constrained.

  • Lila Nordstrom:

    I think that we have this tendency, especially in the U.S., because of the way our healthcare system works. I think because of the way we conceive of what public benefits should be and who deserves them, we have this tendency to apply like wartime framings to domestic crises. And that was very explicitly what happened on 9/11.

    You know, we were just barely willing to accept that the heroes of 9/11 might be getting sick. But I think a lot of people didn't feel that we had any responsibility to the community that was also misled that was also sent downtown without proper safety equipment that was, in many cases left to clean homes and businesses without any guidance. And there was sort of a tendency to not view those as part of the same government failure that imperiled the health of first responders. But in reality, it was the same thing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Here we are 20 years later when you get together, if you do, with your high school classmates, that all kind of went through the shared experience together. Do you find how did how did how did you all process this? I'm sure it was different for each of you. But are there still people, you know, grappling with what I guess would be PTSD or are they aware of that?

  • Lila Nordstrom:

    A lot of people actually had it during the covid crisis for the first time. My organization got more inquiries about mental health services than we have ever gotten. And it was a little surprising because it's 20 years later. There are so many events that re-trigger you know memories of 9/11. And a lot of the time it takes a certain amount of exposure to that kind of crisis, a certain kind of exposure for people to make the connection. I think also a lot of us never spoke about this in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When do you think the work that you're doing now at StuyHealth, will be unnecessary?

  • Lila Nordstrom:

    We have 9/11 survivors in every state. You know, there are 9/11 responders and survivors who are sick in almost every congressional district. It's a national problem, but certainly perceived as local. I think that I see a lot of connections between what I experienced and what a lot of other people in other disaster communities experience that would be that would benefit from similar kinds of broader policy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When did Stuyvesant High reopen get back to normal?

  • Lila Nordstrom:

    Stuyvesant was returned to our building in Lower Manhattan on October 9th, which was less than a month after the attacks. The the context is that this neighborhood was not yet open to the public. The cleanup effort was happening all around Stuyvesant. So it wasn't that Stuyvesant was on one edge of the cleanup effort, but the barge that they were bringing the debris to was on the other side of Stuyvesant. So it meant that we were sandwiched between, you know, the pile at ground zero, which was still on fire.

    It was on fire till late January, so four months of a consistent chemical fire, basically. And then on the other side, you know, pulverized debris was being dumped right next to our schools air intake system. And we were going through five police checkpoints to get into this area so that I guess it would look like things were back to normal. But in no way was this area fit for people to be returning. And certainly it wasn't fit for children to return.

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