A surgeon remembers 9/11

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“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”
– Cesare Pavese

“A plane! A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

The surgical case was moving along steadily. Another surgeon had removed a skin lesion from the patient’s neck, and the pathologist had not been certain if it was a cancer. I had recommended removing the scar and several of the nearby lymph nodes. The surgery had just started and was going slowly. The scars from the prior surgeon’s work made the initial dissection difficult.

“What?”

“A plane. I was in the OR lounge and the news switched to New York. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

I stared at the anesthesiologist who had rushed into the room. I checked the surgical field and put pressure on the wound.

“What are they saying? What’s going on?”

“They don’t know.”

He left the room, and I started back to work again. The resident and I teased out the anatomy, peeling the skin from the underlying muscles, finding the jugular vein and preserving the nerve to the shoulder. We dissected the fatty tissue containing the lymph nodes out of the depths of the wound.

The door opened. “Another plane. This one crashed into the other tower.”

“What?”

“They’re replaying the video over and over. The first tower is on fire. Then there’s the other plane.”

He ran out again.

The resident and I lifted the nodes, clearing them from the vagus nerve and the carotid artery. By placing his fingers along the carotid artery, the resident could feel the patient’s blood pulsing through the large vessel on its way from the heart to the brain.

The door opened. “Bush was just on TV. He says it’s terrorists.”

I put pressure on the wound.

“Please stop. Please don’t come in with any more news reports.”

The anesthesiologist looked at me. “OK.” He left.

We continued removing the lymph nodes, tied off a few small blood vessels and closed the wound. We were quiet. The patient woke up, and we wheeled him to the recovery room.

“One of the towers collapsed.”

I went to the lounge to watch with the others.

The patient did fine. He had gone to sleep in one world and had awakened in one that had completely changed.

No other communal “Where were you?” moment is as indelibly etched in my memory as 9/11.

Fifteen years have passed. That morning has reappeared for me when I have seen photos of the New York City skyline or while reading about the World Trade Center in Let the Great World Spin. It returned intensely while standing at Ground Zero watching the waterfall disappear into the darkness below.

I struggle, unable to understand why 3,000 people were killed that day in New York, at the Pentagon, and in a farm field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I mourn the hundreds of first responders and cleanup workers who have been sickened or have died. I despair at the thousands of civilians and soldiers worldwide who have been killed and the millions of refugees displaced since then.

Our species has endured a litany of senseless, self-inflicted tragedy. 25,000 died in the American Revolution. 450,000 died in the American Civil War. 1,177 died at Pearl Harbor, 145,000 died in Dresden, 60,000 died at Hiroshima. The survivors live, tell the stories, and urge us to remember. Then they age and fade. Our sense of innocence returns and our hands return to our daily tasks.

9/11 shook our collective innocence once again and remains an evolving tragedy. As long as we can tell and listen to the stories, we will never forget.

Bruce Campbell is an otolaryngologist who blogs at Reflections in a Head Mirror.

Image credit: Andrey Bayda / Shutterstock.com

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