"Attack on America" eclipses breaking heart news: Heart failure and TCT meetings aborted in Washington

Shelley Wood and Susan Jeffrey

September 12, 2001

Washington, DC - At the precise second that American Airlines Flight 11 hurled into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City yesterday, many of the world's biggest names in heart failure (HF) research sat innocently unaware of the disastrous sequence of events unfolding in New York, and soon after, just 5 miles away at the Pentagon.

At the time - Day 2 of the Heart Failure Society of America's (HFSA) 5th Scientific Sessions in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC - Dr Alan S Maisel (Veterans Health Care System, San Diego, CA) was extolling the virtues of bedside BNP testing. In another session, Sara A Blackburn (Indiana University, Indianapolis, IN) was discussing salt and water restriction in HF management. For the most part, conference delegates were earnestly listening to the latest news in HF treatment, oblivious to the cascading horrors appearing on television screens out in the conference hotel lobby.

"We had just finished our FDA industry symposium on subgroup analyses," Dr Jay Cohn (University of Minnesota Medical School) told heartwire today. "It was a very interesting opportunity to discuss the whole issue of subgroups with the FDA, industry and academic leaders, and it was at the end of that session, at 9:30, that I got the word of what had happened."

This is a very new world today than it was yesterday and all of our lives are going to be changed forever. This day in history is going to be indelibly etched in our brains.

It was a surreal morning. More and more delegates leaving their morning sessions joined the hushed crowd around the lobby televisions. Others punched ineffectually at their cell phones, unable to place a call. Still more hurried to their rooms, packed frantically, only to be caught wheeling their luggage around the hotel foyer like flocks of lost nannies with buggies: roads were closed, and taxis, trains, and buses were halted.

The hotel bar was packed by noon - ostensibly because of all the television screens, although the barman seemed to have no time to watch. A Scios representative who spoke to heartwire today observed that traffic in the exhibition hall slowed to a trickle, and by mid-afternoon many of the exhibitors had left. With some uncanny prescience, the freebie on offer at the Scios booth was a calling card, and these turned out to be one of the hottest commodities in the exhibition hall that day.

Afternoon sessions continued

The symposia themselves seemed at first to be staggering to a standstill, but by the afternoon, all the sessions went ahead as scheduled, although CNN and ABC seemed to be drawing the bulk of the crowds.

According to Cheryl Yano, Executive Director of the HFSA, the afternoon sessions "were actually very well attended."

"It was, of course, the most difficult for the speakers to get up, to be enthusiastic about research with the human life that was being lost around us. But the sense was that people attending the sessions were just looking for something to do to divert their attention."

Cohn concurred: "One of the feelings was that the initial disbelief was going to allow people to continue to sit in on a meeting yesterday afternoon, but we recognized that once the reality [of the tragedies] struck that by today there would be absolutely no interest in science. The only appropriate thing would be to cancel the rest of the meeting."

The only possible decision

HFSA executive directors met several times over the course of the day yesterday and decided to prematurely close the meeting at 3:30 pm. At 4:30 pm the decision was officially announced in each of the four concurrent scientific sessions, although the scheduled 5:30 poster session and reception continued.

"There were a lot of people at the poster session last night and we ended the evening with a dessert reception that was also well attended," Yano noted. "I think people just wanted to connect with other people, and it was a comfort to be with their peers."

Also planned for Washington this week was the TCT meeting, scheduled to begin in earnest today. After initially announcing that the conference would go ahead as planned, the TCT meeting organizers told heartwire that the meeting would closed tonight after bumping up some of the late-breaking trials, now being presented this afternoon.

Numbed confusion reigns at HFSA meeting

In the HFSA meeting exhibition hall, the Scios booth kept staff on-hand until 6 pm. Upstairs, hotel managers set up an information booth with details on buses being chartered, roads and metro routes opening or closing, prayer services and airline crisis lines. Most of the delegates appeared unable, or unwilling, to venture out into the incongruous sunshine or plan ways of returning home.

And the sessions that never took place? According to Yano, some or all may appear on the programs for next year's meeting: "The speakers who had interesting data to present will just have more data next year," she said, although the late breaking trials are now more likely to be presented at the upcoming AHA or ACC meetings.

"Those people who had spent a lot of time planning their participation were of course disappointed, but it was the only appropriate thing to do under the circumstances," said Cohn, adding that most people just wanted to get home. "Obviously the magnitude of this event for the nation and for the world is such that a day or two of inconvenience for us individually is pretty minor. But it has disrupted the entire lifestyle of the nation and obviously people who were away, as we were, are now separated from our homes and families."

The day after

The mood was little changed at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel today. Conference placards still stood pointlessly outside empty rooms in deserted hallways. The myriad televisions hashed over the events, although the throngs of viewers had dwindled.

Mid-morning, September 12, Bambi Henson, a nurse practitioner with Corpus Christi Cardiology Associates in South Texas stood with her bags and her son by the hotel exit. She was hoping to get a bus to Raleigh, NC. "I just want to get home now," she told heartwire . "My other son is still at home," she said, putting in words the feelings of so many other stranded delegates hoping to get back to their families and away from the nation's capital.

Life must go on. One of the messages that the US is trying to get out to the world is that we're not going to let this interfere with our lifestyle and our business of life.

"But life must go on," Cohn mused. "One of the messages that the US is trying to get out to the world is that we're not going to let this interfere with our lifestyle and our business of life. Science and heart failure remain an important consideration and we can't disregard the reasons why we'd gotten together to try and expand our understanding of this disease, but at times like this obviously the crisis takes precedent."

"This is a very new world today than it was yesterday and all of our lives are going to be changed forever. I think everyone's aware of that and that this day in history is going to be indelibly etched in our brains."

A few miles from the horror

Meanwhile, at the Washington Convention Center, Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics 2001 was just getting under way. About 3000 of an expected 11000 faculty and attendees had already arrived and were in morning sessions when the horrific news of what was happening - some of it only a few miles away - began to sift through the meeting rooms. Unlike at the Marriott, where televisions everywhere broadcast the eerie images of destruction at the WTC and the Pentagon, the news moved less rapidly here.

"The news slowly spread from the morning until about 11:00 or 12:00, when the full impact of the magnitude of this catastrophe started to hit everybody," TCT Co-Director Dr Gregg W Stone (Lenox Hill Heart and Vascular Institute, New York) told heart wire today. "In this age of information, interestingly it was not the Internet that was the fastest way information spread: It was cell phones," he said. The issue then of course was, "in our little corner of the world, what to do about things; what the proper response was," he added. Over the next 24 hours, they grappled with various issues: Was it disrespectful to those who perished to continue the meeting, or was it more important, as many have asserted, that terrorism, even of this magnitude, should not be allowed to stall day-to-day life in the US? "We've experienced everything you could imagine in terms of emotion: depression, anger - what everyone in the country is going through," Stone said.

A meeting of all the faculty and attendees was held this morning to decide collectively how to continue. Finally, for those who were already here, they elected to finish the day today with an abbreviated meeting that incorporates as many of the main sessions as possible. Exhibits were cancelled as too commercial to be appropriate, and live case demonstrations - the hallmark of the meeting - were also cancelled.

"I think this will meet the wishes and desires of most of the people who are still here," he said. "It gives them an endpoint, so they know that their job - if you will, after being here - is to focus on getting home and being with their families."

- SJ


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