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USU Alumna Reflects on Her Path to Healing Following 9/11

Christine Casey sits at a table

By Christine Casey, MD, Captain, U.S. Public Health Service


(Editor’s Note:  Dr. Christine Casey, a Uniformed Services University class of 1995 School of Medicine graduate, responded to the World Trade Center in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks as a member of a U.S. Public Health Service Disaster Medical Assistance Team. DMAT members are trained to provide emergency medical care following a natural disaster or other catastrophic event. Casey was responsible for the care of rescue workers on “the pile.”  Her makeshift clinic was inside a damaged deli, one of four clinics set up on the WTC site in the midst of the rescue and recovery operations.)  


A few of my favorite (healing) things…

The Sound of Music is the first and only film I have watched that has an intermission. I was nine years old. The setting was the Al. Ringling Theater, built in 1915 and located in Baraboo, Wisconsin (home of the famous circus brothers). On screen, the majestic Swiss Alps matched the grandeur of the theatre that had been designed first for stage productions. And so, an intermission seemed perfectly fitting. Surrounded by red velvet curtains, golden Grecian columns, and regal chandeliers dripping from the ceiling – my senses would merge this experience to solidify a lifelong memory and portend a new one. 

Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles, and warm woolen mittens. Brown paper packages tied up with string. These are a few of my favorite things. A simple tune in a movie to lift spirits. But it is also a reminder for a somber biographical story of hope rising from ashes. 

On this 20-year anniversary of 9/11, I recall the prescient moment at Ground Zero when I knew I would need a similar Phoenix to emerge from the ash cloud swirling in the night sky outside. And I found it in…

Three PHS officers pose outside of the damaged deli that was used as a makeshift clinic. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Christine Casey)
Three PHS officers pose outside of the damaged deli that was used as a makeshift clinic called Medical Station 4 at Ground Zero.
(Photo Credit: Courtesy of Christine Casey)


A picture from Rosie (my raindrops on roses)

Our medical station inside the deli was a lesson in ingenuity and adaptability. The Snapple refrigerator stored vaccines at the perfect temperature of 4 degrees C.  The deli shelves with the plastic curtain strips were transformed into a makeshift medical supply cabinet neatly lined with bandages, tape, and medicines. Papered along the sides of the deli case were drawings gifted by students from an elementary school in New Jersey; this suburban community had lost several of its children’s parents in the collapsed towers. The artwork was sent to thank the medical responders. I was drawn to a picture of a block-shaped building with a medical symbol. High above was a crudely drawn face shedding tears in a cloud. Scrawled in primitive letters were the words, “Thank you much very.” 

The artist had signed her name “Rosie” and a bright green sticker affixed to the paper identified her school. Without hesitation (but admittedly with some trepidation), I snatched it up and showed it to my teammates. “I’m taking this home. I’m going to find that little girl and thank her instead.”

In August 2002, I sat in my office and nervously pressed the keypad on my desk phone. 

        Hello? Yes. Um…

        This might sound really strange…but I’m a 9/11 responder and I’m looking for a little girl named    Rosie. You see, she and her classmates sent pictures to the pile to thank the medical personnel. 

        Well, and anyway, I promised myself that I’d try to find her someday before the first anniversary. You know, to thank her instead.

Dead silence on the line. Did I get disconnected?

        Hello?

Or maybe the person thinks I’m crazy or worse yet, creepy.

        Hello? Sorry. I know this is strange…I promise, I’m not…Okay (gulp).  

I’m a pediatrician, and based on the picture, I estimate she would have been a kindergartener or first grader last year. The same age as my son.

Nothing. Now I’m thinking that I should just hang up.   

But then…as if life breathed into the phone.

        (GASP). That’s my daughter. Rose.

A child's drawing of a hospital building
Students at an elementary school in New Jersey sent drawings of encouragement and gratefulness to the medical responders. Christine Casey received this
art from a student named Rosie. (Artwork by Rosie, Courtesy of Christine Casey)

With force equal to her staccato inspiration, I finally exhaled. And harkening back to that prescient moment when I put Rosie’s drawing in my backpack, I knew that having found her would indeed launch my thread to healing.

Rosie’s mom told me that the school had wisely decided to commemorate 9/11 on October 11 instead of that fateful date. Somehow knowing about that small separation of dates gave me immense peace. Doing so teased out the remembrance of the unthinkable tragedy from the solemn tribute that is intended to bring comfort. I sent some pictures of my team in our medical stations and a big “thank you” to the school’s administrators for the children’s artwork. During the ceremony the school planted a tree in memory of their own who were lost among so many others. 

Rosie’s mom only worked part time in the elementary school office, so it was fortuitous that she was present to answer my call that morning. Through the years, we’ve both marveled when recalling how we discovered each other – a shared goosebump memory. Our families continue to correspond periodically, mostly around the 9/11 anniversaries. At Christmas time, we’ve enjoyed lovingly hand-dipped chocolate-covered pretzels from Rosie’s family.


Music on Broadway (my whiskers on kittens) 

I had always said that I’d revisit the pile only when the ground healed. And I did for the first time in 2012. I’ve returned to the city for many trips since because both my adult children attend Pace University for their baccalaureate degree in acting. Pace, which lost 47 community members in the attacks, is located just blocks from the Oculus, One World Trade Center, and the 9/11 museum. But in 2012 my kids were just middle and high schoolers, and we were in the city for a family vacation filled with Broadway shows. 

2012 was memorable, not because of the vacation or because 11 years had passed since bringing home Rosie’s picture but because the ground had filled, and that’s when I met Rosie for the first time. 

PHS officers hang up the AID STATION Banner at the damaged deli that was used as a makeshift clinic at Ground Zero. (Courtesy Photo)
PHS officers hang up the AID STATION Banner at the damaged deli that was
used as a makeshift clinic at Ground Zero. (Courtesy Photo)

We met in a typical NYC café and enjoyed a delicious brunch. Nerves dissipated quickly. The chatter was easy and light. Afterward, we were off to see Wicked at the Winter Garden theatre. Enthusiastically we convinced Rosie’s family to join us. To our delight, they scored same-day tickets. Inside the theatre, we giggled and took pictures on the carpeted steps. To a casual observer, it would seemingly be a normal outing. But we were strangers brought together out of extraordinary circumstances. Later that week, my family visited the site of the towers. The holes had been filled but it would be many years until I returned to visit the museum, to hear the rushing water of the waterfall pools, or to see the grass and trees that signaled the ground’s healing had begun.

In the summer of 2017, I returned to the city so my daughter could attend a summer acting conservatory. As self-proclaimed Broadway junkies, we consumed numerous shows on the Great White Way. One hit home. 

Come from Away is set in the week that follows the 9/11 attacks and tells the true story of what transpired when 38 planes were ordered to land unexpectedly in the small town of Gander in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada as part of Operation Yellow Ribbon. But the story is so much more, as embodied in a line from the show that says, “We honor what was lost, but we also commemorate what we found.” 

I sat in the balcony absorbing a different 9/11 story of hope rising from the ashes. The audience was doing the same in a transformative palpable way and, remarkably, as if it were a singular experience. I was aware of a study that had found audience members’ emotions and heart rates can synch during live theatre performance. Maybe that’s what was happening. Sitting beside me, my daughter (who as barely two years old when the towers fell) was also gleaning a new and deeper understanding.  At curtain call, the entire house rose to their feet simultaneously. 

That indescribable moment of unity – now intertwined seamlessly with Rosie’s thread of healing. 

Another photo of the damaged deli. 


Essex Deli (my bright copper kettle)

In 2014, I received a flurry of texts from my son – “Mom I found it. I found the deli!” For several years when I visited my college students in the Financial District, I would try to reimagine the placement of my medical tent. From that locus, I would search for the deli. One year, I thought I had found it. But the orientation of the refrigerator case seemed off. Ultimately, I resigned that the deli must have closed, and another store replaced it. I chalked it up to a futile quest. My search had ended, but my son’s had not.   

“Are you sure?” I texted back. But I didn’t need to ask again because the next text included a photo of my son in front of the sign that had marked our Medical Station 4 (the deli). The owners had collected and preserved several pieces of the 9/11 response to honor those who served. Framed photos…and inexplicably…that sign. 

Christine Casey's children stand next to a Medical Station sign inside of a restaurant.
Christine Casey's children, Dorey (left) and Sam (right), pictured with the Medical Station sign that hung over the clinic Casey had served at. The sign
currently hangs at the building that had housed the clinic in the Financial District of New York City. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Christine Casey)

The next time I visited the city I crossed the threshold of the deli again – a door now replaced the wrinkled tarp we had used. But the rest was exactly as I remembered it (well almost). The menu sign and counter were cleared of thick dust, the refrigerator case was humming with a rainbow of cold drinks, and the alcove next to the door where we set up our triage table was surprisingly bare. While walking deeper into memories, I found myself approaching the back room where a group of men sat eating and socializing. This was the back room where our medical team had drilled in anticipation of various environmental hazards. At the center of the activity was the owner with smoke curling from the tip of his cigarette. A jovial Greek man – and since we shared that same heritage – I felt at ease. I quickly told him my story. I thanked him profusely for sharing his building those many years ago and for rebuilding his livelihood.  But most heartfelt was my appreciation for “commemorating what he found,” so that I could find it too, and for preserving the artifacts. Not surprisingly, he recounted stories of the many others who made a similar pilgrimage to the deli. 

That reminiscent moment of discovery – now intertwined seamlessly with Rosie’s thread of healing.

A lot of construction equipment and heavy debris from Ground Zero.
The scene of Ground Zero directly outside of Medical Station 4 where Christine Casey was stationed to provide aid.
(Photo Credit: Courtesy of Christine Casey)


The ocean (my warm woolen mittens)

Time passes with long days and short years. My son is married, my daughter is a college senior, and Rosie is a mom. I am winding down a fulfilling uniformed career and preparing to retire in 2025 with 34 years of service. While today my husband and I are empty nesters, in 2001 having just arrived in Atlanta for my new assignment, we were living in temporary quarters with a toddler and a preschooler in tow. Nothing was settled in our personal lives, but that paled in the shadow of the upending global events that were unfolding so painfully in slow-motion on the TV. When the call to voluntarily deploy with my Disaster Medical Assistance Team came, without hesitation, my husband encouraged me to go. He said, “This is what USU trained you for. We’ve spent years seeing families get deployed, separated, put in harm’s way. You have a choice, but there is no choice. We’re a service family.” And so, I went. 

I flew on one of the first planes to resume normal flights after the massive ground stop. Before we taxied, the pilot stood outside the cockpit, feet apart in a staunch stance and grimly addressed the near empty plane. He instructed us to “take down” anyone who approached the flight deck. There would be no problems on his plane. I don’t recall details of the eerily silent flight itself but seared in my mind is the image of NYC viewed from the sky. As we approached the landing, the pilot oriented us to the steaming morass of lower Manhattan. It looked like a sepia frame from an apocalyptic movie; the horror was too vivid for color. The haze of dust clung between neighboring skyscrapers. The ground was rented, wounded, with deep open ragged gouges. The remnants of the towers’ exoskeleton looked like toothpicks piled and scattered. That’s when I looked away and first resolved to return only when the ground was healed and lush. 

Christine Casey and her husband Sean (left), her son Sam (center), and daughter Dorey (right) in 2019. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Christine Casey)
Christine Casey and her husband Sean (left), her son Sam (center), and daughter Dorey (right) in 2019. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Christine Casey)

Fast forward to 2021, and again my husband is the encourager. Go. Go to the beach. It’ll be good. I’ll join you on the weekend. So, I went for some quiet time to reflect.  

Sitting on the cool sand and peering into the Atlantic Ocean while contemplating the upcoming 20th anniversary, I’m struck at how the sea waves can hold both calm and chaos. Memories, like woolen mittens, can protect but also irritate. Likewise, my memories hold all these four juxtaposing but complementary attributes (calm, chaos, protection, irritation). 

The unsettling memories are ones that I have yet to examine, unravel, or intertwine with Rosie’s healing thread. And it is not lost on me that in the Sound of Music film, the song with the lyrics “SO, a needle pulling thread” happens in the second act.

Turns out, the 20th anniversary is my intermission. Not unlike the von Trapp family traversing the Alps, healing is a journey. So, I imagine Rosie’s tree. Has the sapling rooted firmly in the fertile soil? Is the trunk sturdy enough to bear the weight of its branches? Can its canopy cast shade large enough to swallow the memories?

While someday I hope to visit and weave the tree (my brown paper package) into Rosie’s healing thread, I know that some stories can’t ever end with a pretty bow (tied up a string). In the meantime, I will continue to draw solace from few of my favorite (healing) things…most precious among them is Rosie’s picture. 

Rosie (now Rose, back right), with her mother, Kathy, and daughter, Scarlett. Rosie's gift of a drawing for 9/11 first responders laid the foundation for a path of healing for Dr. Christine Casey. (Photo courtesy of Christine Casey)
Rosie (now Rose, back right), with her mother, Kathy, and daughter, Scarlett. Rosie's gift of a drawing for 9/11
first responders laid the foundation for a path of healing for Dr. Christine Casey. (Photo courtesy of Christine Casey)


PTSD RESOURCES:

www.cstsonline.org

www.deploymentpsych.org

https://health.mil/phcoe

www.Ptsd.va.gov