America's medical community, like the rest of a grieving, shell-shocked nation, quickly pulled together in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks.
By Tuesday afternoon, as the sheer scope of the devastation hit home, thousands of doctors and other medical personnel across America had heeded a call to action, volunteering to travel to the disaster scenes to provide whatever medical assistance they could.
Unfortunately, once hospitals in New York, New Jersey and Washington had treated more than 4,000 victims, much of the remaining work involved the recovery of bodies buried under the concrete, steel and ash of the Pentagon and the collapsed twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Indeed, the next day, the New York Department of Public Health asked hospitals across the nation to provide forensic teams to help with "mortuary" functions-tagging bodies and identifying the remains. The request was withdrawn later that day when sufficient volunteers were identified.
As the week went on it became clear, said Chuck Moran, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Medical Society, "that the doctors who have a high probability of being called would be pathologists and dentists."
Added a spokesman for the Chicago-based American Medical Association: "I can imagine that that's going to be an unfortunate necessity. Over the long term, we'll probably have to put out a call for forensic pathologists."
Shortly after the first attack, physicians in New York were asked to place their names on a statewide list of volunteers. The response was so great by mid-Wednesday that New York Gov. George Pataki asked healthcare workers not to call the day-old hotline after the Healthcare Association of New York State was swamped by more than 8,000 responses from across the U.S.
Medical societies such as Pennsylvania's continued to gather names of potential volunteers throughout the week even though authorities were reporting that the need for volunteers was being met.
The AMA, with about 290,000 members, transmitted a message to state medical societies and specialty groups within hours of the terrorist attack, asking for volunteers willing to assist the rescue efforts. More than 1,700 medical personnel, including about 700 physicians, responded to a request for volunteers in critical-care specialties, including orthopedic, vascular and plastic surgeons. Burn specialists also were needed, one official said.
Meanwhile, HANYS was coordinating the local effort to identify physicians, nurses and emergency medical staff available to assist. The Connecticut Hospital Association also was involved in a similar effort to provide volunteers and supplies.
In suburban Chicago, as many as 40 members of Midwest Emergency Associates, a private medical group with contracts at five area hospitals, were ready to head to the East Coast in a caravan of cars to help the rescue effort. Patrick Connor, M.D., a member of the group, said he called the American Red Cross after watching the carnage on television, offering the physicians' services. Like most other healthcare personnel outside the immediate area, the doctors were not needed.
"The Red Cross said they'd get back to us. There were not many patients, mostly the rescuers (who suffered injuries)," he said.
Some doctors, however, didn't need to go far to help the injured. Joseph Ornato, M.D., of Richmond, Va., was at an emergency and critical-care conference in Brooklyn when word came. The 110 conferees were at the Brooklyn Marriott, just across the East River from the World Trade Center, he said.
"We could see smoke and flames everywhere," said Ornato, chairman of emergency medicine for the Medical College of Virginia. "Within minutes, a crowd started coming across the Brooklyn Bridge. Minutes after that, the first tower came down," he said in an interview by cell phone.
The group of doctors, nurses and paramedics set up a triage unit in the hotel. They went to a local pharmacy for supplies. Members of the group went to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge so they could send walking wounded to the center, he said, but few came.
Finally, the visiting doctors were able to reach local law enforcement officials to let them know they were close by, Ornato said. A city bus brought the doctors closer to the scene, where they set up a field hospital in a courtyard about eight blocks away from the World Trade Center.
Ornato said they had seen only about a half-dozen patients by early evening, and those had minor injuries. Building instability in the area had delayed rescue workers in their efforts to recover victims, he said.
-With the Associated Press