A physician treats those who sacrificed for others
Ten years after thousands of police officers, firefighters, EMS workers, and communications and construction personnel raced to the site of the Sept. 11 attacks, many are suffering from chronic medical conditions.
When these first responders need assistance, they turn to Dr. Iris Udasin.
As director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Science Institute Clinical Center and director of employee health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, she is in charge of the treatment and monitoring of 1,700 first responders throughout New Jersey.
Now the principal investigator for New Jersey, the East Brunswick resident jumped at the chance to head the clinic, a joint venture with Rutgers University, when it opened in January 2003. On the same site is the clinic she founded and oversees that services medical school students and employees.
“I love taking care of people,” said Udasin, who said her current role fulfills both her vision of tikun olam and her personal ambitions.
First responders come to the clinic with a range of ailments, including asthma, lung damage, gastro-esophageal reflux disease, and sleep apnea.
“We can say with absolute confidence they are suffering from excess respiratory illnesses,” said Udasin, speaking to NJJN by phone from her office on the Piscataway campus of the medical school, where she is also a professor of environmental and occupational medicine.
The clinic also allows researchers in various departments at the university to do research on such issues as the toxic effects of the dust breathed in in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack.
Udasin travels the state to speak before urban search and rescue groups. She also testified before Congress, met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton several times, and has worked with numerous state and federal government leaders. In addition, she volunteers with medical students at a clinic for homeless and indigent patients.
Udasin is on the board at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick and chairs its social action committee, through which she helped to get the synagogue’s food collection for the poor off the ground.
“All of humanity should be able to have that sense of tikun olam,” said Udasin. “I’ll volunteer to help with anything if I can.”
Udasin said she understands why so many raced to “the pit” on Sept. 11, 2001, without a thought about breathing apparatus and other protective equipment. She herself volunteered at the state police barracks outside Trenton, fielding calls during the anthrax threat then facing postal workers and others and advising medical personnel.
Udasin has witnessed not only an increase in asthma among the first responders, but also pulmonary fibrosis sarcoidosis — which can cause permanent lung damage and can be fatal if it affects major organs — and gastro-esophageal reflux disease.
While Udasin describes the latter as “a really bad case of heartburn,” sufferers often also have Barrett’s esophagus, a precursor to esophageal cancer.
Investigators are also seeing “an excess of sleep apnea in people who aren’t overweight,” said Udasin, adding, “We also see lingering post-traumatic stress disorder in people who recovered body parts.”
While not enough time has passed to say with certainty that there will be a spike in cancer among the first responders, Udasin and her staff suspect that will be the case in the coming years.
Much of the costs of treating medical conditions deemed “World Trade Center-related” is now being covered by the federal government. However, in some cases, such as the treatment of an extremely rare form of cancer requiring treatment by a specialist, the lack of coverage still troubles Udasin.
“The police have insurance, but not all the construction workers do, and there are times they have to go under charity care,” she said. “We want to make sure people are cared for while we determine whether their ailment is related to the World Trade Center.
“Our patients are all working people and I want to be able to take care of them. They are all heroes who risked their lives to save other people, and we have a responsibility to care for them and get them to the best person to take care of their medical needs.”
Udasin recommends that even seemingly healthy first responders come to the clinic regularly for screenings.
“I can tell them what they need to do to stay healthy,” said Udasin. “I always say their goal is to be an interesting person but a boring patient. There could be someone who has a precondition that could turn into cancer. We want to catch anything before it becomes serious.”