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America's Day Of Days

9-11-01: Plastic Surgeons Rush to Volunteer Staff Report

Plastic surgeons -- who are also skilled in general surgery -- were quick to step up and offer their services after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But the black day held many surprises for everybody, surgeons included. Four plastic surgeons who lent a helping hand recall America's day of days.

John Sherman, M.D., a Manhattan plastic surgeon, had just finished an interview with a German film crew and was ready to start seeing patients when his brother phoned. In a voice close to panic, the relative told Dr. Sherman to turn on his office television. The doctor's office is about two miles north of the World Trade Center (WTC) site.

Burning Tower

"I sat there in awe for a few minutes, watching the tower burn, thinking perhaps a small plane had strayed off course and hit one of the WTC towers," Dr. Sherman told "I could see there were going to be many, many injuries that day so I cancelled my appointments and ran to The New York Hospital -- Cornell Medical Center, where I have privileges."

Dr. Sherman admits to being something of an action junkie. He worked his way through college and medical school as an ambulance driver and paramedic so he not only knew medicine and surgery but emergency and disaster procedures.

Twenty miles away, when Brooklyn plastic surgeon Leonard Grossman, M.D. greeted his first patient of the day, she told the doctor about seeing a plane hit one of the WTC buildings.

A Second Plane

"I thought it was strange but I continued with the procedure," Dr. Grossman says. "As I was putting her to sleep, the radio reported a second plane hitting the other tower. So I finished that operation, a breast augmentation, and cancelled the rest of the day's appointments. I grabbed my assistant and anesthesiologist, jumped into the car and headed for the Emergency Room at New York Methodist Hospital.

"I was thinking we were going to be needed in a big way."

Elliot Jacobs, M.D. was in his operating room, performing an eyelid surgery and a facelift with the radio playing music as usual. Suddenly, the news broke in and started following the events at the World Trade Center which was just a few miles from his office.

"I was in the middle of an operation and had to finish but the horror on the news was chilling and affected everybody in the O.R.," Dr. Jacobs says.

In mid-Manhattan, Gerald Ginsberg, M.D., who is board certified in both general surgery and plastic surgery, was starting what he assumed would be an average day until he left a drug store across the street from New York University (N.Y.U.) Downtown Hospital. In the parking lot, he saw a group of people standing on the corner, looking up.

Ring of Fire

"I looked toward the twin towers and saw a ring of fire on the North tower, about 15 stories down," Dr. Ginsberg says.

"Somebody said something about a plane hitting the building and the thought shot through my mind that people make up the most outlandish stories.

"Then, I remembered the 1993 World Trade Center attack. After that, emergency procedures were put in place so all I had to do was cancel the day's appointments for facelifts and breast augmentations. Those procedures could wait but injured people could not.

"I went directly to the hospital operating room, put on scrubs and went to the front entrance to help with triage."

"Triage" is used in disasters to sort victims in terms of medical priority with the worst -- but likely to survive -- being first to receive care.

First Doctors

While Dr. Ginsberg was about to meet his first patient from the attack, Dr. Sherman was thinking there must be thousands of casualties at the site and asked some hospital paramedics if he could get a ride to Ground Zero to help set up triage.

"About eight of us climbed into the first ambulance to respond and raced down FDR, a main Manhattan thoroughfare," Dr. Sherman says. "We drove with everybody's eyes glued to the burning tower and in an eerie silence. We were just pulling up at the site when the second plane hit. We jumped out anyhow and I found I was one of the first doctors there. Still, I did not know exactly where to set up triage because firemen and cops were running all over. I was also concerned about the small piles of clothes on the sidewalks that were once people. When somebody jumps from 100 stories, there is not much left. Getting hit by one is equally deadly.

"Finally, we chose a place about 70 yards in front of the North Building and then decided it was too close to the falling debris and the jumping occupants.

Black Sky

"'Surrealistic' is overused," Dr. Sherman says. "But it is the only word I can think of to describe the scene; I was almost at the point where I expected Steve McQueen to come out of the building and for a film director to call 'cut!'

"Suddenly, there was a huge explosion. I looked up and saw that the very top of one building was collapsing as one story fell onto the floor below it. The sky turned even blacker and it all was hurtling down toward me. I said to myself 'I'm dead!' and started running."

"With a 110-story building falling on him, Dr. Sherman ran for his very life and regretted wearing clumsy rubber clogs which slowed him down."

Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, Dr. Grossman's breast augmentation patient -- who had been put under light anesthesia -- left the office and found mass transit in New York City at a complete standstill. Like thousands of other New Yorkers, she walked home that day, a freshly sutured chest notwithstanding, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and covered about five miles before reaching home.

Dr. Jacobs' facelift patient was awake and recovering and asked the doctor how the operation had gone.

"The procedure went very well but while you were under anesthesia the world has changed drastically," Dr. Jacobs said. He noticed that she was reading a book in which passengers planes were used to crash into the White House.

Most Perished

Dr. Grossman and his team were still waiting for patients.

"At the emergency room we found nobody was coming in," Dr. Grossman says. "The sad realization slowly sunk in that most people in the towers had perished. The few who escaped suffered inhalation injuries from the dust and did not need surgery. A feeling of horror came over us when we discovered there was really nothing for us do."

With a 110-story building falling on him, Dr. Sherman ran for his very life and regretted wearing clumsy rubber clogs which slowed him down.

"I remember thinking at the time it was good that I was wearing a hard hat," Dr. Sherman says. "Then, in the blink of an eye, I was knocked down and felt stuff piling on my back burying me deeper and deeper. I kept thinking, 'I'm dead; I'm dead!' And the other thought running through my mind was that my daughter's bat mitzvah was two weeks away.

"The last image I had before everything went totally black was an FBI agent running toward the collapsing building," Dr. Sherman says. "He was about twenty yards from me and wore a jacket with huge 'F.B.I.' letters on the back. I later learned he was killed."

At the N.Y.U. hospital entrance, Dr. Ginsberg met his first patient, a woman with massive injuries that had been caused by the huge fan blades on one of the first jet's engines.

Jane Doe

"At that moment, she was only known as Jane Doe number one," Dr. Ginsberg recalls. "She was bleeding to death from a huge wound that almost sliced her buttocks off and ran through her lower body; she also suffered compound fractures of both legs. We got her into the operating room quickly; I and three other surgeons repaired her injuries and cleaned the many wounds."

The operation required 26 units of blood, a colostomy, the deepest wound cleaning known and breathing assistance. But the medical staff still did not know her name.

At Dr. Jacobs' office, surgery for the day was done and he looked out his window on Park Avenue. "All I could see were hundreds of emergency vehicles with sirens blasting heading downtown while hundreds of people, most covered in soot and ash were all trudging uptown. It was like a migration of grey-white lemmings because everyone walked in only one direction."

Back at the WTC site, when Dr. Sherman regained consciousness, he discovered he made a life saving dash by running under the South Pedestrian Bridge, the only span at the disaster site to remain upright that day. So the doctor was not buried under steel girders and concrete but ash, gray concrete dust and other light rubble.

Stumbled Around Blindly

"When I came to, I didn't know if I was under two feet or sixty of ash and debris," Dr. Sherman says. "My glasses were gone and I looked and felt like I had run into a truck. I was in shock, wandered around in the darkness for about 20 minutes and stumbled into a store where people helped pour water into my eyes and over my face to clear the dust. I then wandered another 25 minutes not knowing north from south until some paramedics found me, loaded me into the ambulance and took me to my own hospital."

Dr. Sherman recalls feeling no pain although he walked almost an hour on a broken leg. But as soon as he reached safety in the hospital, the pain started.

"All my colleagues had also left their private practices and were waiting to help at the hospital," Dr. Sherman says.

Dr. Jacobs left his office that afternoon and walked to the nearest hospital, Lenox Hill, to volunteer his services. But there was nobody to treat. He was told the collapsing buildings had claimed virtually all of the people inside.

At N.Y.U. hospital, Dr. Ginsberg and colleagues completed the operation on the badly wounded woman. While making rounds, Dr. Ginsberg found that his patient had regained consciousness and gave her name, Debbie, and a phone number of somebody who should know. The nurses asked Dr. Ginsberg to make the call.


"A man answered, I identified myself and asked if he was missing a young woman named Debbie," Dr. Ginsberg says. "I told him, first of all, she's alive. He, the fiancé, then totally lost his composure in sobbing and had to turn the phone over to a friend to whom I gave all the other details. Debbie was also asking for somebody to contact her mother and, fortunately, the friend knew how to reach her.

"I hung up and then lost my own composure and wept long and pretty hard."


After mourning the death of four paramedic friends who died under the collapsed building, Dr. Sherman was later treated for post traumatic shock syndrome. The condition is often suffered by soldiers who stay too long in combat.

"I only went through 35 minutes of terror while soldiers can often go through several years," he says. "That type of horror takes years to overcome so that you can sleep again or even talk about it without shaking and becoming emotional."

Debbie, Dr. Ginsberg's patient, survived and went though several years of intense physical therapy. To motivate herself while in intensive care, she decided she was going to dance at her wedding which was delayed until spring, 2005. Debbie married the guy who answered Dr. Ginsberg's phone call that day and did manage to dance a few steps although she currently walks with a cane.

Drs. Grossman and Jacobs continue seeing patients in their respective practices; both hope they never again see a disaster like the one New York City on September 11th, 2001.

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