Global Health Nexus, Winter 2002

Too Few Sirens

My office is on First Avenue in Manhattan, right in the middle of “hospital row.” Usually, the ambulances I hear are an annoyance, but not today. Because each siren means that maybe another survivor from the carnage of the past week has been found. Sadly, there are too few sirens.

I have the honor to be the dean of what is probably the most diverse dental school on earth, the dental school that is the closest to the twin towers, and the dental school that, like so many others, demonstrated great character in this time of crisis. This honor also brings responsibility. I write today out of a sense of duty to my colleagues in dentistry, to thank all of you in our profession who expressed such concern and generous offers to help, and to call you to action.

Our dental clinics remained open throughout the crisis because, like you, we take care of people. Our students, traumatized by watching the horror unfold through our windows, volunteered everywhere they could. They went to triage centers at Ground Zero, to Bellevue Hospital across the street, and to the Medical Examiner’s Office a few blocks away where they handed out water and face masks to people who were looking for loved ones. We also helped the ME’s office, overwhelmed by the scope of the tragedy, as our faculty members, trained in forensics, were called to action; and by donating a large quantity of supplies and equipment, including half of the X ray processors in our building. Indeed, our faculty and staff literally built a temporary dark room to expedite the processing of the grim information that was so desperately needed by grieving relatives. Within hours we had also set up counseling services for the members in our learning community who needed help. We did much more, but nothing more than you would have done.

On Thursday, we returned to classes and engaged in business, certainly not business as usual, but business nonetheless. To do less would mean that terrorism wins. We also worked to ensure that our strong legacy of multiculturalism was sustained, not destroyed as the terrorists would have liked. Then on Friday, in a sadly ironic twist of fate, we held an abbreviated version of a Continuing Education Course that we had scheduled months ago called “A Health Professional’s Response to the Terrorist Threat.” This program sprang from a recommendation that our College had made to our parent university earlier this year to establish an “Institute on Catastrophic Events.” Such an institute, we argued, would catalyze public debate on scores of relevant topics from bioterrorism to evacuation plans that have previously received little public vetting.

Our resolve that health professionals, including dental professionals, have an important role to play in helping to manage the sequelae of catastrophic events, not just explosions, but earthquakes, collapsed water tunnels, anthrax and the like, has been strengthened. Therefore, I offer this call to action. We must educate our colleagues about what they can do to protect their communities, their patients, and their own families. There are dozens of questions to explore and supply cabinets to be stocked. As members of one of society’s most highly educated professions, we must do more than sit back and wait for the next time. As a child of the cold war, I know that sirens mean warning; when it comes to terrorism in America, there have been too few sirens.