Visiting Vet: Remembering Sept. 11, 2001

Nothing was normal. Not then. Not now.

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A Marine Band trumpeter plays Taps while first responders and officials salute a flag that hangs on the side of the Pentagon Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008, during the dedication of the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. — White House Photo Office

It was a little after 9 am the morning of Sept. 11. I was finishing up a cat spay when my secretary, returning from running errands, stuck her head through the exam room door to deliver the news she had heard moments ago on her car radio: “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

“Noooo,” I said in disbelief. Like most people, at first I assumed it must be some kind of tragic accident. After tying my final suture, I passed my patient to my assistant and rushed into the house to turn on the television. My clinic is attached to my home by a Dutch door, and traffic flows freely from home to work and back, so my staff put the recovering kitty in a cozy, towel-lined carrier and, with patient in tow, followed me into the living room so we could all watch the news broadcast together. By the time the second plane hit, we knew it was no longer a horrible mistake. It was … something else. Too stunned to do anything but stare at the screen, we sat immobilized and watched. My 4-year-old daughter was away at daycare, but my baby, not yet 2 years old, was home playing with blocks nearby. When the first tower collapsed, I think I said “Oh my God.” A helpless silence descended over all of us in the living room. Then a tiny voice piped up from behind me.

“Boom.” My child stood clutching an alphabet block in her little fist. She toddled closer to the television, staring entranced at the scenes replaying over and over. First one plane striking, then the second, people running, towers collapsing.

“Boom,” she said again. Her words roused me from my trance. Scooping her up, I moved her and her blocks around the corner, out of range of the images. “Here, honey,” I said cheerfully. “Build Mommy a tower in the kitchen.”

The morning went on. The second tower fell. In my back room, my next surgery waited, a little 6-pound Yorkie with a bladder stone to remove. With trembling hands, I called the owners. “Did you see the news?” I asked. Of course they had. “I don’t know it I can do more surgery today,” I said. “I’m really shaken.”

The owners were concerned. Yorkie was uncomfortable, straining and urinating frequently. She had been fasted overnight. Couldn’t I go ahead with the procedure? Wondering silently if World War III was about to start, and if I should be doing a cystotomy at this particular time, out loud I replied I would do my best.

Clients continued to come in for appointments. I even went on a house call. After a few hours, I realized that, at this exact moment, bizarre as it seemed, there was nothing else to do except to go on with day-to-day life. My hands had stopped shaking. I couldn’t sit and watch the towers fall over and over again. I might as well remove that bladder stone. Grabbing the Yorkie’s medical record, I wrote “9/11/2001 — bladder stone removal,” and prepared for surgery. The cystotomy went smoothly. The dog recovered quickly. The country did not.

My appointments continued that afternoon. In a kind of surrealistic haze, I gave distemper shots and did physical exams as though everything was normal. But nothing was normal. Not then. Not now. For months after, Sydney would build tall towers of blocks, then knock them down with her toy airplane. “Boom” she would say, again and again. “Boom.”

The following week I wrote a column about, well, everything. This year, like then, Rosh Hashanah and Sept. 11 are close together. This year, like then, the country is in turmoil, only now the divisiveness isn’t caused by forces outside the country, but from within. We are flying planes into one another. I would like, therefore, to invoke the sense of unity we all had at this time 17 years ago and reprint that piece.

From September 2001

Monday night begins the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, literally the Head of the Year. Not only is Rosh Hashanah our New Year celebration, but it is traditionally considered the anniversary of the Creation of the World. How ironic, to remember Creation as we sit in the aftermath of so much destruction, wondering what our world will look like when all is said and done. Sitting down to my keyboard, I struggle with what to write. An informative column about bee stings, as I had planned prior to the terrorist attacks? I think not. A topical look at the role played by search-and-rescue dogs at the World Trade Center? A speculative piece on the future of bomb-sniffing dogs in airport security?

I type a few words, delete them, start again. Dare I leave the comfortable realm of homegrown veterinary advice and venture into the world of political op-ed? My technician calls me into the exam room to see a patient.

As a small-town veterinarian, I know my clients well. Their children play with my children. I fix their dog, they fix my roof. My waiting room often feels akin to the old country store, where people gathered round the pot-bellied stove or the checkerboard. People know each other, hug, catch up on news, discuss everything from piping plovers to sewage systems to what happened to whom when. Since the attack, every appointment brings not only an animal but a need for serious conversation.

“How are you doing?” “Do you have anyone in New York?” In the exam room, chatting is minimal as we awkwardly try to focus on the business at hand. “How is Fluffy feeling?” “Did you bring a fecal sample?” Fluffy needs some specific tests. The first few days, there are no FedEx flights. On Friday, even though some planes have returned to the air, FedEx has suspended handling diagnostic samples until further notice. Maybe it’s fear of biological weapons. I don’t know. I just know that we have always relied on air travel for timely shipment of blood.

  1. One test we can run here in the hospital. One test we send snail mail to a nearby lab. One test needs to arrive at an out-of-state lab within 24 hours of the blood draw for accurate results; we will just have to postpone it. A client starts to cry as we figure out how to cope with Fluffy’s workup in light of the current situation. “I’m sorry to be so emotional,” she sobs quietly. “It’s just with everything that’s going on …”

The next two people who come through my door are angry. They believe we should go to war. Hit back, hit hard. Men whose personal experiences in World War II understandably shape their feelings today. Search and destroy. Much of the country appears to agree with them. One of the men caresses his kitty gently with calloused hands, chucking her lovingly under the chin as he talks about wiping out however many thousands of people necessary. I talk about being part of a family of Holocaust survivors. I don’t mention the ’60s or Vietnam. He talks about how 50 years after WWII, he can still barely talk to people of Japanese heritage. I think how much I have always liked him … and wonder what it would take for us to find common ground today.

As a person whose life has been spent observing animal behavior, I often look for the biological basis of human action and emotion. I do not intend to offend or dehumanize when I compare people to other species of animals, but none of us is as far from the cave as we sometimes like to think. What I have learned is that an animal that has not had its basic needs met, that is perpetually hungry or injured, that has been treated cruelly, may become disproportionately aggressive. The dog snaps at my hand when I reach down to pet him. The cat cowers, hissing and striking out with its claws from the corner of the cage.

I know that brute force only elicits more aggression in return, and that in most cases, the animal is not inherently bad, but responding out of fear or a history of mistreatment. I also know that when dogs run as a pack, they may savagely kill in a way that an individual beloved pet would be incapable of. I am in no way excusing the horrific acts of the terrorists. I am merely trying to understand how so many people, whom I still believe are born decent and good, can be so damaged as to turn to such incomprehensible acts. And to look at how we respond to those acts with aggression of our own.

Perhaps the vicious dog that bites must be destroyed, but we should not, in turn, become a pack of wild animals that attacks randomly, injuring the innocent. We need to rise above our deeply rooted biological instinct to lash out indiscriminately. We must stop attacks on Arab-Americans and Muslims, and look deeply and honestly at the places where our own hurts and fears turn into racism. And, most crucially for our country, we need to stay close and connected with each other, even when we disagree strongly about what should happen next. The hawks and the doves must keep talking, as we model, for the whole planet, how a compassionate, rational democracy behaves in a time of crisis.

I’m being called back to my office, where several Islanders are waiting with coughing cats and limping dogs. Some, I know, share my feelings. Others I am unsure about, and wonder what they will think when they read my words this week. After all, I’m not the Middle East correspondent for the New York Times. I’m just the Visiting Veterinarian. I’m supposed to write about roundworms and rabies.

But my very profession depends on the life of privilege we lead, where people can afford to own pets and provide them with sophisticated medical care. Hey, I’m still amazed and gratified every morning when I turn on the shower. Hot, running water. Miraculous. Too many people in this world are denied access to such fundamental resources. And now, every evening as I tuck my children in bed, I’m only too aware how lucky I am that I am not among those who have to explain why Daddy isn’t coming home.

We are all affected by what has happened. We are all moved by the beauty of how the majority of Americans have risen to the task of supporting one another, reaching past differences to unite. Now let’s reach even further and rise to the task of supporting all humanity. On this Rosh Hashanah, this New Year, let us strive to create a world where all people can live in prosperity and safety. A peaceable kingdom where the lion lies down with the lamb.