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East County Wednesday, Sep. 4, 2019 1 month ago

Keiser University nursing instructor continues to teach lessons from 9/11 in her Lakewood Ranch classes

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Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

Christine Malloy doesn't want us to forget.

The Keiser University of Lakewood Ranch nursing instructor does what she can to recount the stories of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001 from the prospective of a nurse who was on the scene at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan, 20 blocks from the World Trade Center in New York City.

It's actually part of her job to make sure her students don't forget.

Malloy said the terrorist attacks were the defining moment of her nursing career. Now she teaches specific classes where that disaster is part of the learning experience.

"It's more than likely my nursing students will experience a disaster situation," Malloy said. "I let them know about the disaster and about ethical issues. You have to make decisions ... you want to sit and comfort a patient who is dying and you can't.

"There are so many things you need to know and it's so important these days. The likelihood they will experience a disaster, with all the gunshots and bombings, is high. My students are going to experience some disasters in their careers, so I take it seriously when I teach it. Their obligation is to be prepared."

Jay Heater

With Sept. 11 approaching, I asked Malloy to share some of her memories.

St. Vincent's Hospital, which is no longer there, was at the corner of 12th Street and Seventh Avenue when planes struck the World Trade Center. It was the second-closest hospital and closest Level 1 Trauma Center to the scene.

Malloy, who was the director of nursing at St. Vincent's, said she had arrived at the hospital as usual, around 7:45 a.m. and remembered what a beautiful fall day it was.

"I remember saying, 'I wish I was at the beach.' I thought it was going to be a routine day."

About an hour after she arrived, Malloy looked out a window and saw a plane flying way too low.

"It looked like it was flying down Seventh Avenue," she said. "It was just a weird sight."

At 8:46 a.m., terrorists flew the plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Moments later, the hospital's disaster bell went off. The devastation could be seen from the hospital. At 9:03 a.m., another plane hit the south tower.

Malloy didn't know the scope of the disaster, but she knew she needed to get her staff ready. She called her husband, John, and told him she wouldn't be home for a few days. It took about 90 minutes for the first patients to arrive and then hundreds came in the next two hours.

The staff's training kicked in. They had run through coordinated drills, three or four times a year, two of them live drills each year with groups such as the Boy Scouts posing as patients. Many on the staff had worked during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which left six people dead and more than 1,000 injured. Terrorists set off a 1,200-pound bomb in a Ryder truck in a parking garage beneath the World Trade Center.

"You learn things from each (disaster)," she said. "Living in New York, you see a lot of accidents and crazy things. The 1993 bombing, we learned we didn't have enough ID bands as a way to identify people. We also learned we needed much better communication. That first time, we had walkie-talkies and it was quite a challenge."

When news of the attacks spread, all the hospital's off-duty personnel raced to the hospital. Malloy told the story of one of her nurse managers who was in a car taking her mother to the doctor. She was on the far side of the Midtown Tunnel when she saw the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

"She stopped a policeman and asked him to arrange to get her mother home, and her to the hospital. You have to understand a lot of our nurses were married to policemen and firemen. It was quite an intense experience because many of our nurses' firemen and policemen husbands were at the site. We had hysterical patients and our staff nurses were hoping their husbands were still alive, but they had a job to do."

The hospital set up three triage areas on Seventh Avenue and another triage area once patients were moved inside. Depending on status, patients were taken to various, and usually non-medical, areas such as cafeterias or comfort and grief areas. So many patients were coming some had to be treated in an area outside the hospital.

With all the off-duty personnel coming to the 812-bed hospital, Malloy said enough staff members were on hand to treat the nearly 500 patients who came in the first two hours with mostly burns and fractures. But help started flowing into the hospital in the form of medical personnel who worked in other practices.

"People were arriving at our doorstep wanted to help, but that was one of the things we hadn't planned for," said Malloy, who moved to Florida in 2004 and earned a doctorate in nursing at Florida State University. "What do you do with them? That set up a whole different problem for us and we had to dedicate some of our resources to deal with it."

It wasn't just the medical staff that stepped up to the challenge. At one point, the hospital's water system gave out. Malloy said the hospital had a great engineer and somehow a giant water truck pulled up on the street just outside the hospital soon after the potentially catastrophic situation occurred. 

"You couldn't have asked for anything more in terms of teamwork, from the CEO to all the directors," she said. "We couldn't have done it without one another. You had all these chaotic moments with all the volunteers and family members looking for loved ones. But it was a smooth, oiled machine. And those doctors and nurses were the best I've ever worked with."

One of her vivid memories of a woman named "Gigi" who had suffered multiple fractures and burns. One of the paramedics had carried her from the trade center as the ground began to shake and the building collapsed behind them. Malloy remembered Gigi, who was a patient at the hospital long after the attack, as being thin, and bloody, and brave. 

It was three days after the attacks when Malloy finally went home.

"The shock was when I walked out of the hospital and looked at those buildings that weren't there anymore," she said. "You couldn't believe it. It was such a vivid image."

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