Alexandra Jorge, who was an undergraduate at Pace University on 9/11, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 28. Photo: Alexandra Jorge
Alexandra Jorge was on her way to class at Pace University on the 7 train when the first plane hit the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001.
As the day’s events unfolded, Jorge, then a senior studying applied psychology, took shelter on campus with other students before making her way back to Queens via the 59th Street Bridge hours after the towers fell. When classes at Pace resumed in the weeks following the attack, things had hardly returned to normalcy.
“The scene was horrific,” Jorge said. “As soon as you came out of the subway station you’d see the dust and debris and what was left of the charred buildings.”
Even inside school buildings, she said, “it smelled like jet fuel.” Jorge recalls students petitioning the dean at Pace to replace air filters on campus.
“The air quality was just horrible after 9/11,” she said.
A few years later, Jorge, then living in California and pursuing a graduate degree, visited the doctor for a routine checkup, which revealed a tumor on her lymph nodes. At 28 years old, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
“I was pretty much devastated,” she said. Surgeries and other treatment controlled the cancer, but Jorge will have to take medication for the rest of her life.
Several years after her diagnosis, Jorge received an email from a Pace alumni group detailing health benefits and compensation available to people who lived, worked, volunteered or went to school near the World Trade Center in the months following the attack and later developed illnesses linked to toxins released at the site. Thyroid cancer was on the list of covered conditions.
“That’s when it dawned on me,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh my god. This is why I got sick.’”
Jorge is one of roughly 80,000 enrollees in the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides health screenings and treatment to first responders and others who were at ground zero on September 11, 2001 or during the weeks and months that followed. The program, established by Congressional legislation known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, provides assistance to those with conditions linked to exposure to asbestos, benzene, chromium, lead and other carcinogens released into the air after the towers collapsed.
Attorney Michael Barasch represented James Zadroga, the NYPD detective who worked at the site and later died of pulmonary fibrosis and for whom the federal legislation was named, as well as over 10,000 others affected by the attacks.
“Most people think that the Zadroga Act is exclusively for first responders,” Barasch said, noting that though the majority of enrollees are emergency responders and cleanup workers, the program is also open to others.
Along with local elected officials, union representatives and community leaders, Barasch is now participating in a new outreach push to identify students, teachers and others who lived or worked in Lower Manhattan who may qualify for federal assistance.
Barasch said that over 400,000 people in total were exposed, and urged anyone who was near ground zero to register for the health program. “You have nothing to lose,” he said. “You get free annual medical monitoring.”
Word-of-mouth and social media are the most effective means for contacting eligible survivors, Barasch said, particularly to inform retired teachers and students who have left the city. “It’s a national tragedy,” he said. “It’s affected people who now live all over the country.”
Jorge, now 37 and living in Los Angeles, is a cancer researcher at UCLA, studying how breast cancer patients adjust to their diagnosis and cope with depression. The World Trade Center Health Program covers the copayment for her thyroid medication.
“I’m glad to share my story to raise awareness for others who have gotten sick and should be receiving some sort of treatment or assistance or be getting surveillance for symptoms,” she said.