Ten years ago, I was a third-year family medicine resident at an Army hospital in northern Virginia, about 10 miles south of the Pentagon. On that fateful Tuesday morning, which I still recall as being a beautiful, sunny September day, I was rounding in the ICU. I think it was shortly after 9 a.m. when the buzz started — something was going on. Someone got a phone call from their spouse who had heard something and so on. A television was turned on as we tried, like the rest of the country, to process what was unfolding before our eyes.
Soon, our hospital was asked to send an ambulance with physicians, nurses, and supplies to the Pentagon. I volunteered to go and threw on scrubs and raced to the ER to help get the ambulance ready. We didn’t really know what to bring, so we brought everything, stuffing medications, gauze, and saline in cupboards and crevices along the interior of the ambulance. We piled in and raced north.
As expected, everything was closed off as we came within view of the Pentagon, but we were waved through, joining hundreds of other people milling around, trying to make sense of what was happening and trying to figure out what to do next. I saw familiar faces that morning including patients who worked at the Pentagon and hospital staff who happened to be in D.C. at a meeting. One of the orthopedic physician assistants from our hospital was among the first to arrive at the Pentagon. He rushed into the smoky building to lead people out. Everyone from colonels to privates worked together to set up triage areas for the anticipated casualties.
At one point, we were told to take cover under a bridge overpass because there was an inbound plane that looked suspicious. Peering into a bright blue sky from under the bridge, I saw fighter jets streaking across the sky. In that moment, I assumed we were in danger, situated at what was someone’s target. However, despite any danger, it wouldn’t have felt right to be anywhere but there.
My contribution on September 11 was small, insignificant really, considering the amazing, courageous sacrifices made by hundreds, thousands of very ordinary people doing something heroic. I thought about that again this week, listening to a radio interview with just a regular guy called upon to do something heroic in Texas, as wildfires swarmed around him. He went from ordinary to extraordinary in a moment, simply because of where he was and the circumstances that happened to find him.
As physicians, parents, and spouses, we’re all expected, at moments, to be heroic, to go beyond ourselves to do something hard and self-sacrificing. Those times are often, like September 11, horrific times we’d rather never experience. However, my guess is that you, just like the guy in Austin, Texas and the firefighter in New York City and the physician assistant in Washington D.C., would transform in an instant from someone concerned with productivity measures, hemoglobin A1C levels, and carpool arrangements to a hero — stepping in and stepping up to do what needed to be done. I think that’s pretty wonderful and pretty extraordinary, that we have the ability to refocus so quickly on what is truly important.
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