September 9th, 2011
By Jennifer Olin, BSN, RN
I felt like I'd been a nurse about 12 seconds when September 11th happened. In reality, I'd been licensed for almost three months and I was five weeks into my nursing internship in the operating room at Georgetown University Hospital (GUH) in Washington, DC—but it felt like about 12 seconds. I didn't know anything, I was just getting started, I was new in town and excited by my first nursing job.
Everyone will tell you, it was a beautiful, perfect autumn morning until the world exploded. On that day, I was learning to scrub ENT (ear, nose and throat) cases, specifically, placing tubes in baby's ears. We had just completed a case and my precepting scrub tech and I were walking out of the OR when a nursing assistant burst through the department double doors. "Some (expletive) just drove a plane into the World Trade Center." I have never forgotten his words. We raced out to the TV in the family waiting area and watched the rest of it unfold just before 9 a.m. that Tuesday.
We watched the South Tower get hit. We were horrified as was everyone all around us. But there was work to be done, and the staff went back to the OR, wondering what was going on. At 9:37 a.m. American Airlines Flight 77 hits the Pentagon and our day was changed forever.
I imagine it was the same at every hospital near the crash sites. At GUH, patients were discharged as quickly as possible to make room for casualties, surgeries were stopped before they started — or finished as fast as safely possible in expectation of injured — and the ER started massing stretchers and preparing for an onslaught. GUH was less than five miles from the Pentagon. The staff was told we were in lockdown, no one would leave until the crisis was over.
To summarize, it was a long day of little activity and lots of fear. My coworkers had family members who worked at the Pentagon, everyone had a friend or neighbor or a classmate who was across the river in Virginia or up the road in New York City. And, there was the missing United Airlines Flight 93 that was believed to be headed to DC when it was crashed in Pennsylvania.
Mostly, there were no casualties. We were ready, but there was no one coming. We waited, we tried to call our families and reassure them we were okay. We watched the city evacuate right past our front entrance and looked up at the fighter jets flying a protective grid over us. I was released from work around 7 p.m. and drove home across what seemed like a deserted Washington D.C.
I lived and worked on the East Coast, in DC and NYC, and New Jersey among other places, for the better part of the next nine years. The topic of 9/11 always came up. I met nurses and doctors in NYC who grabbed supplies and raced downtown to help. I met nurses who went through what we did, from a distance, on alert and able to do nothing. For the healthcare personnel I worked with who were near the tragedies there is always a small sense of how hard it was that day to not be able to do what we do — to help.
I'm linking to an article from the American Journal of Nursing recalling what it was like in their NYC offices that day as they watched the Twin Towers burn and fall. And, they remember the nurses who died that day:
Finally, I remember my own loss. As I watched the footage of that first plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center, my heart broke. I knew in an instant. My friend Kenneth F. Rice III worked on the 96th Floor for Marsh & McLennan. He was never late to work.