9/11 Survivor: 'COVID Humbled Me'

John Whyte, MD, MPH; John Feal


September 11, 2020

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  • 9/11 survivor John Feal's foot was crushed by a steel beam, which led to gangrene, septic shock, and partial amputation. But it's the mental trauma that has been harder to forget.

  • Feal created the FealGood Foundation after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to help first responders with health issues and injuries.

  • Thirteen pieces of federal and state legislation regarding healthcare for 9/11 survivors have been passed, totaling about $40 billion.

  • Feal was infected with COVID-19 and has recovered. He continues to wear a mask and social distance, and encourages others to do the same.

  • Almost 1000 Americans are dying every day from COVID-19, including numerous 9/11 cancer survivors. "We're accepting new norms, and that's what I'm afraid of."

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

John Whyte, MD, MPH: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD.

Today marks the 19th anniversary of the September 11th [terrorist attack in the United States]. Joining me today to discuss this milestone, as well as how COVID-19 is impacting 9/11 survivors, is John Feal, a construction worker and US Army veteran.

On September 17, 2001, after five intense days of recovery work at Ground Zero, a steel beam fell and crushed John's foot. He spent the next several months in the hospital enduring gangrene, several surgeries, and septic shock.

Because he and the thousands of first responders who suffered injuries or developed respiratory problems, rare cancers, and posttraumatic stress distress (PTSD) initially received so little help from the government for long-term care and financial assistance, John started the FealGood Foundation. It's a nonprofit dedicated to spreading awareness and educating the public about the catastrophic health effects of 9/11 for first responders and helping them get the financial assistance for much needed treatments.

John, thanks for joining me.

John Feal: Thank you for having me, the introduction, and bringing me back up memory lane. In talking about my injury, what a lot of people don't know is that physically I was altered, but mentally I was altered too. Spending 11 weeks in the hospital with gangrene and becoming septic, I could block that out. It's the mental part.

Four doctors diagnosed me with PTSD. When I got out of the hospital, I went from 185 pounds to 120 pounds. Not only did I know right away that there was something physically wrong with me, but I would have to learn how to walk again and adapt to an amputation. I did eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy for 2 1/2 years, and that saved my life. The injury humbled me.

Five minutes before that injury, I thought I was John Wayne and Bo Jackson and the world's best weekend athlete ever. That injury and having COVID this year on top of pneumonia, those are the only two times in my life that I've actually been afraid. I don't say that to be pretentious. I just don't have that DNA to be afraid of anything, and both of them not only humbled me but scared me. I'm blessed, and I'm lucky to be here.

Whyte: You clearly have had a rough few months over the years. How are you feeling today?

Feal: I'm not the same person I was after my injury on 9/17/01, and I'm not the same person after COVID. Physically and mentally, I'm just not the same, and I'm not going to say I'm worse off. I know I'm not as fast as I used to be. I can't jump as high as I used to, but I'm smarter.

I see things clearer. I smell differently. I hear differently. I think every time something like this happens to me, it injects empathy and sympathy into me, knowing that there are other people worse off than me. I don't need 9/11 or my injury to define me. My journey started way before that.

My journey is far from over. I lost my mother in 2006 and my sister in 2014, both to cancer. I look over my shoulder every day and whether I'm going to get a 9/11-related cancer, because I see so many men and women getting cancer from 9/11. However long I have time on this earth, I'm going to take advantage of it.

Whyte: Good. You're talking about what you're doing, and I love hearing that. The foundation that you started is more than just about fundraising. Isn't that right?

Feal: Yes. Well, we don't fundraise as much as we used to because of all the legislation. We've gotten 13 pieces of legislation passed ─ five in Washington, DC; five in Albany, New York; two in New Jersey; and one in Michigan. That legislation, if you combine them all together, it's about $38-$40 billion.

Whyte: Wow.

Feal: Many people are now getting help because of that, but we still have more work to do. In fact, on September 15, I'm going back to Washington, DC, with Jon Stewart. We're going to introduce legislation for veterans and soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, who were affected by the aftermath of the toxins of the burn pits. They have the same cancers and respiratory illnesses as 9/11 responders, and they started those burn pits with jet fuel. Everybody knows that jet fuel has all of those toxins in it.

We're going to continue to advocate and help pass legislation. We'll continue to donate, when we can. Since we started 15 years ago, we've donated about $78 million.

Whyte: What about people who will say the towers fell 19 years ago — why are you still doing this so many years later?

Feal: If I was a lawyer (and I'm not) and I was in a courtroom and I turned to the jury and said, "Everybody's immune system's different. Have a great day." I'd be the best lawyer in the country.

You're a doctor. Doctors and scientists have proven, and science gave us validity when we said we were sick, and elected officials said we were making it up. Everybody's immune system is different.

The average age of the 9/11 responder was 38 years old on 9/11. Now you're looking at 57, 58, 59 on average. We've still got men in their 40s though, and women. The absorption through the nose, mouth, and skin of those toxins — they just all have different latency periods. More and more people are getting sick now.

Nineteen years later, we still have to advocate and ensure that people get in the World Trade Center Health Program so they get free healthcare. We still have to make sure people file a claim to get compensated for their illnesses, because the rest of their lives are altered.

Whyte: Do you get frustrated that sometimes you have to fight for these things, and it shouldn't be that difficult to get some of these benefits, get the recognition, and to acknowledge the science?

Feal: Take COVID-19 right now. Science and politics is having a boxing match in front of our eyes. It's like a prize fight, right? It's mixed martial arts ─ science vs politics.

During the first week of March, a week before I got sick, I did a video and posted it on Facebook, for the 9/11 community. I said, "Everybody heed the advice of the experts and the scientists. Take this seriously, because we are compromised. If you get COVID, it will kill you." A week later, I got COVID.

We want to ensure that everybody heeds the advice and the guidelines of the CDC, the federal and state government, and make sure that they're staying socially distanced. We're in a mess. Listen, I got COVID-19. I still wear a mask wherever I go. Nobody told me definitively that you can't get it again. I do not want to get COVID-19 ever again. That scared me, and it kicked my butt.

Whyte: Do we think 9/11 survivors are more at risk for COVID and more impacted? Is that what we're seeing?

Feal: Yes, absolutely. We know of about three-and-a-half to four dozen 9/11 responders who had cancer or survived cancer from 9/11 who have died from COVID-19. If that's how many we know with limited resources, there's probably many more. So, everybody, I don't care if you're a 9/11 responder or living across the country.

In the beginning, they called cops, firefighters, doctors, and nurses. Frontline workers are the last line of defense, and the American people were the front line of defense. Those doctors and nurses were the last line of defense.

The American people failed in a lot of ways because we put a heavy burden on those doctors, nurses, EMS, firefighters, and police officers when we could have done a better job as Americans.

Whyte: But John, are we seeing that now? Is that a fair comparison to say the same thing is happening now, with the challenges in the availability that we saw with PPE and the challenges with testing? Is this the same issue whether we call them first responders or last responders? We know who we're talking about.

Feal: Yes. I still think we're going through issues, where these doctors and nurses and first responders aren't given the proper respiratory or protective gear. They're not getting supplies fast enough. People are still getting sick. We average about 1000 deaths a day across the country from COVID-19. We're accepting new norms across the country, and that's what I'm afraid of, because this isn't my norm.

Almost 200,000 people have died from COVID, a few thousand people have died because of 9/11, tens of thousands have died because of war, and that's the new norm unless it affects you directly. There are 330 million people in the United States: 3% make up the military; 1% of 1% made up the 9/11 community. Two hundred thousand makes up less than 1% of 1% in the country. So people accept that as a new norm. But if you have any ounce of empathy or sympathy, and you really are a human being, then you don't accept this for a new norm, because this is disturbing. It bothers me to the point where I want to help as many people as I can.

Whyte: Tell us what's behind you in this image. What's on those walls?

Feal: A lot of them are accolades. I ran out of room so many are in boxes. It's great to be noticed for your work, and there are a couple that mean a lot.

I have a Congressional Medal of Honor for being an Above & Beyond Citizen , which is voted on by the surviving Congressional Medal of Honor winners. That one means a lot to me.

Really, what it is, it's my journey. Because 9/11 didn't start my journey. It was just an important chapter in my life, and I don't know where my journey ends.

I think the best part of the past 19 years — because I always try to find the positive — are the friendships, more so than getting legislation passed, donating money, or building a park on Long Island. The lifelong friendships that I've made mean more to me than anything, knowing that I don't know when my journey ends, and keep doing what I'm doing.

You know the old saying "You only live once"? I disagree. I think you only die once, and you live every day. That's how I want to live my life. In my will and on my tombstone, it won't say my name, date of birth, and date of passing. It's going to say, "He tried."

Whyte: Is that your advice to COVID survivors?

Feal: Yes. That's my advice to everybody who's going through something. We all have a story to tell and we're all going through something. Some worse than others. But how tall is tall? How fat is fat? It's perception and how bad you really have it.

Whyte: What else does the tragedy of 9/11 teach us about how we can more effectively manage this pandemic that occurs once a century?

Feal: One, it taught us that if this didn't humble you or wake you up, then you're not human, but it should have also told us that we're vulnerable. We're vulnerable to pandemics. We're vulnerable to terrorist attacks. We're vulnerable to mother nature, when she lays her wrath upon us with tornadoes and hurricanes. We've seen that recently. I think we need to do a better job in how we treat each other. We can learn a lot from each other.

Here's the problem. We're living in such a toxic environment now. If we bottled September 12th of 2001, we'd be in a better place right now. Because it didn't matter about your agenda, your political affiliation, or your income. It didn't matter if you were tall, short, fat, skinny, black, white, Muslim, Catholic, Jewish. We all came together, not as Americans — we all came together as human beings. I believe good triumphed over evil, and I also believe charity triumphed over anger, and we moved forward as one.

Now, somewhere along the line, bad politics, poor leadership, and a 24-hour news cycle that hops on one story makes you choose a side. We all finger-point at each other and use the word "hate" so much. We're afraid to stop and listen instead of yelling and screaming at each other. When you actually stop and listen and try to understand each other, you're burning calories. We've had a lot more healthy people in this country as well.

This isn't my norm. I believe in a God, but when you remove yourself from a religion that dictates how you live your life, you're free. When you remove yourself from a political affiliation but believe in the political process, you have found your center, your chi. You're free.

I respond to everything I do. I don't react, because that means it was a knee-jerk reaction and you're using emotions. I prefer to use math and weigh the pros and cons to everything I do and how I'm going to help people, where I can respond and better help an individual or the masses.

Whyte: Well, you're right. The lessons that we've learned from 9/11 can help us in managing this crisis, John.

Feal: Look at every crisis, whether it's Hurricane Katrina or Sandy. We all had a common enemy or a common disaster, and we all came together. This pandemic didn't bring us together like it should have.

We should not be accepting of people dying. Those are families being torn apart. People are losing their income and can't provide for their families, pay their utilities, and put food on the table. When did we stop becoming human beings? I just can't live or accept that.

Whyte: It's an important reminder of where we need to be going in order to truly manage this pandemic and come out stronger, as you allude to.

John, I want to thank you for your advocacy, leadership, for your fight to help keep survivors healthy and get the services that they need, as well as helping us think through on how to manage this pandemic.

Feal: I appreciate that. Thank you for having me.

Whyte: Thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context.

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