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Doctoring after the attack
Even as bridges leading out of Manhattan were jammed with people trying to leave the city in the wake of the terrorist attacks on that city on September 11, five people from Montreal were quickly making plans to drive to the site of the disaster to offer their assistance.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
Raghu Venugopal was working as a third-year medical resident at the Royal Victoria Hospital when he heard that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
"I realized in about 20 minutes that I wanted to go," says Venugopal. "Twenty minutes after that I had permission from my chief of section to leave indefinitely."
He was not alone. Fellow resident Carolyn Rosenczweig saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center on television. Like many, she spent much of the rest of the day in a daze.
"Initially I thought we were going to be getting patients here," says Rosenczweig. When it became clear that Montreal was not going to be receiving extra patients, Rosenczweig decided she had to go south.
"There was nothing that could hold me back," she says.
She was in good company. When the ad hoc medical team set off that night at 11 pm, Rosenczweig and Venugopal were joined by fellow medical residents Sujith Sivaraman and Anna-Maria Carvallo, as well as emergency nurse and McGill student Marie-Elaine Delvin.
Without official sanction from any government or the University, and without a clear call for help from American authorities, the group was not sure how they would be received at the border. After a thorough search of their bags, they were waved through. After spending the night in Plattsburgh to get some rest, the five headed into New York City.
In the hours immediately following the attack very little was known about what assistance was needed. No one knew how many casualties there were, nor whether there were going to be more attacks. Not knowing where to go, the group headed to St. Vincent's Hospital, where they were directed to a school near the wreckage of the towers that was functioning as a field hospital. On the way there they met Senator Hillary Clinton, who -- like many New Yorkers -- thanked them for their timely help.
When they arrived at the school the air was still choked with dust and acrid smoke from the burning wreckage of the towers. There was no power or phones, and the medical staff at the scene was already over-stretched. The five Canadians were immediately pressed into service.
"As soon as we got there someone came out of the school looking for nurses, so ... I went right in," says Delvin. "Everyone was waiting in case they found a pocket of survivors, but they never did."
Because New York was still jumpy with rumours -- that another strike was imminent, or that the city's bridges were going to be bombed -- the five decided to stick together. They quickly became known as the Canadian contingent.
Rosenczweig remembers talking to one New York resident whose eyes welled up when told that the doctor had come from Canada to help.
Sadly, it soon became all too clear that the five were not going to be treating survivors. Instead, most of the work involved treating rescue workers for smoke inhalation, eye injuries and burns. Conditions were not ideal -- Rosenczweig had to stitch deep cuts by the light of a flashlight. Exhaustion and dehydration were also big problems.
"These people [rescue workers] would not stop because if they stopped it was like giving up," says Rosenczweig.
The disruption caused by the attack went further than the WTC. At one point Delvin was asked to visit a nearby apartment to provide home care to a paraplegic woman who had been left alone for days without power.
Within three days of their arrival in New York, the U.S. Army took over the relief efforts, and the Montrealers came home. They left knowing that even if they were not able to save any lives, they were at least able to let Americans know that they are not alone in dealing with this tragedy.
"It was a quiet, humble contribution, a sort of quiet solidarity," says Venugopal.
He will likely be called to make this sort of contribution again. Venugopal has secured permission from McGill to take a year off from his residency and enrol in Johns Hopkins Center for International Emergency and Refugee Studies in Baltimore. Sadly, given the events of recent weeks, he expects that he will be on the front lines of another man-made disaster soon.