September 7th, 2011
03:51 PM ET

Gupta: 9/11 then and now

Editor's note: Dr. Sanjay Gupta investigates 9/11's toxic dust - what it felt like to breathe it, be enveloped by it, and what the experience means for the next time disaster strikes, in "Terror in the Dust," Saturday, 9 p.m. ET.

I still remember the patient I was examining on the morning of September 11, 2001. She was in her 70s and had a relatively small, benign tumor known as a meningioma. It was located in the right frontal lobe of her brain and I had performed an operation the day before to remove it. I remember her face as I walked in the door. She was sitting up in bed, and had applied lipstick. “Positive lipstick sign,” I had whispered to my residents. I had learned over the years that if a patient was feeling and recovering well, she would be more likely to comb her hair and put on lipstick. This was a good sign for my patient.

A curtain separated two beds in the room and both had televisions in front, bolted to the lime green walls. For whatever reason, I still vividly remember the color of the walls. At different points in our lives, time moves more slowly and becomes unforgettable. Every detail seared into our memory. This was one of those moments.

I had asked my patient to flex her muscle as I tested the bicep strength in her left arm. I was now asking her to extend her arm, while I was feeling to see if all three heads of her triceps muscle were contracting. I remember the moment when there was a collective gasp in the room, and I looked up, wondering if something had happened. My patient’s eyes were fixed on the TV.

I started working for CNN just a few weeks before the attacks of 9/11. As a doctor who had worked as a White House fellow and written about health care policy, I believed I would occasionally be called on to comment about the health care bills circulating at that time, and big medical developments. That was all going to change, and as I turned to follow my patient’s gaze, I was about to learn just how much.

I could not have known I would be standing outside St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, looking at a sea of green - doctors and nurses in scrubs - waiting for patients who would never come. “The people here either lived or they died,” I remember saying on TV a few days later. “Very few were caught in between.” I could not have known that over the next few months, I would cover the anthrax scare, and be embedded with troops in Afghanistan.

And, how was I to know that over this last year, I would be investigating the impact of all that dust and acrid air on the health of first responders.

Firefighters responding to 9/11 at increased risk of cancer

“A firefighter is watching who was there at the World Trade Center and developed cancer over the last 10 years. .. They have the lingering question, why did I get this cancer and was it related to the dust, and you would say what?” I asked Dr. David Prezant, the lead author of a new study in Lancet. “For most instances it was World Trade Center related,” he replied without hesitation. Ten years later, people are still dying from those attacks.

My patient had full strength in her left arm, and an incision that was starting to heal on her scalp. I saw her periodically for a few years after the operation to make sure that she was doing well and that her tumor had not returned. Last time we visited, she said to me, “I will always remember 9/11. You were making rounds, and examining me when we watched it on television.” “Of course I remember,” I said, and reflected on how the world had changed over the last 10 years. “Remember those hideous lime green walls?” she suddenly added.

How could I forget?

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.