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9/11 and Covid-19: remembering two New York tragedies.
I moved to New York City in 2005 and lived there full time until 2016, with some commuting between Massachusetts from 2016 to 2018.
New York isn’t right for everyone. But, it was for me.
I am originally from San Francisco. I now live in Cambridge, Massachusetts (and love it here). But as most people who know me will tell you, I’m a New Yorker in my soul. I suspect I’ll always feel that way. It’s something about the pace and intensity of it, and its thrilling and bizarre diversity—if not the arts scene, which I devoured while living there.
New York is also where I learned to practice medicine. When they said “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere,” they weren’t talking about emergency medicine specifically. But they sure could have been. It was an amazing place to learn this craft, and I was fortunate to be taught by some of the very best physician-educators out there.
So I have a confession: I have a bit of survivor’s guilt. I arrived in New York well after 9/11 and I left well before Covid. As a result of that timing, I never got to serve that community when it mattered the most. There’s nothing I could have done differently. That’s just what fate dictated. In particular, I truly wish I’d been there in March and April of 2020. (I had clinical shifts in Boston that I couldn’t possibly have skipped out on, but still, I somehow feel a pang of remorse about that…)
Today, on 9/11, I’m reposting a data visualization that Dr. Kristen Panthagani and I made two years ago. It shows how absolutely obscene the death counts from 9/11 and the first peak of Covid were in New York and New Jersey. What makes this graphic all the more tragic is the age group we chose to display. This is monthly all-cause mortality in New York and New Jersey among residents ages 18-49, from the turn of the century to 2020. It’s one of the most tragic things I’ve ever made.
The scale of what happened on 9/11 was so dreadful that this nation went to great lengths—some wise and some ultimately misguided—to prevent another such attack. That was the least we could do to honor the dead. I know those individuals would not have wanted anyone else to suffer such a fate. In that way, at least, we’ve had some success.
As we honor those killed on 9/11 by making and keeping our ports of travel safe, I hope we will someday go to the same lengths to limit other preventable deaths.
What can we do in the face of awful things? The great Mr. Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” It’s a wonderful sentiment, and good advice. In a 2020 essay, writer Elissa Strauss updated Mr. Rogers’ message, asking us to take it one step further. Yes, look for the helpers. But, whenever you can, be a helper.
9/11 has become a day of service for many people. I’m fortunate in that just by virtue of going to work in the ER later this afternoon, I’ll be doing something service-oriented. But it’s also my job, so, honestly, it just doesn’t count. Therefore, I’m also making a donation to a vetted organization helping with earthquake relief in Morocco. And they still need help in Maui. There’s probably something positive you’ve been meaning to do, whether with your actions or your wallet.
Let today be the day you get around to doing it. There’s always something we can do to help others. I hope 9/11 becomes a reminder of that.