Samantha Van Doran

My Father Died After Being A 9/11 First Responder. This Is What The Zadroga Act Means To Me

My dad passed away not in a burning building but in a quiet hospital bed in the Bronx. The air at Ground Zero had proven deadly.

By Samantha Van Doran

The FDNY sent my dad off in style.

His funeral was without a doubt one of the worst days of my life, but something about it was beautiful. The fire department’s ceremonial unit hung an American flag above the main street in my town, which we drove beneath in a procession of identical FDNY vans. There were uniforms and bagpipes and an honor guard and -- later, after the church and the cemetery -- food and drinks and laughter at our local firehouse. The whole thing was truly befitting a man who risked his own existence, day in and day out, to save the lives of strangers.

To this day I still can’t reconcile his grand sendoff -- an indication of the kind of man he was -- with his final months and weeks of life. Like all children of firefighters will say of their parents, my dad was New York’s Bravest. He had the loudest mouth, the reddest face, the best sense of humor. He’d often walk by my bedroom – a room in constant disarray – and say, gesturing at my mountains of clothes, “You know, I run into burning buildings for a living, but this scares me.”

When he told me he was sick more than five years ago, he said, “Only the good die young, so I’ll be here forever.”

Samantha Van Doran

In the end, my dad passed away not in a burning building but in a quiet hospital bed in the Bronx, after a nearly three-year battle with stage IV esophageal cancer. The air at Ground Zero, where he had worked for months after 9/11 searching for bodies in the rubble and which the president of the EPA promised was safe to breathe, had proven deadly. He did chemo, lost his hair; tried radiation, got nauseous.

There were other side effects to dying too, things you never picture when you think of cancer: His fingernails turned yellow and cracked, his tear ducts scarred over and he couldn’t stop crying. He got too thin, lost the ability to walk and began to look like a completely different person. His pain had been minimal at first, then manageable, then excruciating and eventually unbearable. We watched his pulse until it stopped and he drifted away.

We try to tell ourselves that at least we had a few good years together before things got really bad. That we were able to travel a handful of times, that we left nothing unsaid and that we had the chance to say goodbye. Still, I wouldn’t wish this fate on anyone -- least of all someone who’s dedicated his or her life to protecting others.

First responders take care of their own. My father was a Battalion chief in the fire department and my mom is a former New York City police officer -- and, believe me, these people know how to do the right thing. In fact, they dedicate their lives to doing it.

So I was beside myself when I heard that the Zadroga Act -- a bill that promised testing and treatment to sick and injured 9/11 first responders, albeit only for a five-year period -- was allowed to expire this October. James Zadroga was the first NYPD officer whose death was linked to the toxins swarming lower Manhattan after the World Trade Center attacks. Since that time, thousands of first responders have been diagnosed with cancer, lung disease and deadly gastrointestinal conditions. The number of first responders suffering and dying from 9/11 illnesses has eclipsed the number who died on 9/11.

For many, like my dad, the cancer waits and waits -- even 10 years or more -- before pouncing. For many more, it is still waiting. The death toll continues to rise.

Samantha Van Doran

Congress stalled, allowing months to go by in which first responders did not have coverage they needed. In the end, Zadroga had to be tacked onto a bigger bill in order to get passed.

Jon Stewart, who fought for the Zadroga Act’s original passage in 2010, became a champion of first responders and their families again. He shamed Democrats and Republicans alike, marching into legislators’ offices and demanding to know why they hadn’t come out in support of such an important and non-controversial bill. Why they didn’t think it necessary to provide treatment and end-of-life care for the bravest and finest, even as they were dropping like flies.

Most of the congressmen and women dodged him, hiding behind their staffers or huddled in meetings. I watched "The Daily Show" in horror, wishing it was three years earlier so I could roll my dad’s hospital bed up Capitol Hill and show them what we’re dealing with.

Because the fact is that first responders are still dying everyday. In Colorado Springs, a memorial wall grows year by year as the names of more FDNY cancer victims are etched into the stone. These are considered line-of-duty deaths even now, more than 14 years after the attack on the World Trade Center.

If we have the opportunity to help heroes, the people who risk their lives to help us, we should never hesitate to take it. There should have been strong and unanimous support for this bill from the start, plain and simple. The haphazard extension of Zadroga, slapped onto the end of a spending bill -- while a great victory for first responders and their families, of course -- is too little, too late. Politicians who wax indignant over the fates of first responders and their families -- who tell us every year on September 11 to “Never Forget” -- are the ones who’ve forgotten.

My dad never lost his determination, his positivity or his will to live, not even at the very bitter end. He never asked, “Why me?” -- because, as he put it, “Why not me?” He had a good life which he spent doing good deeds and refusing to back down from any fight.

I sometimes wonder what he’d think about Congress’ apathy if he were here -- and how many of his FDNY buddies (however many are alive, that is) he’d rally together to storm Capitol Hill and raise some hell.

Samantha Van Doran is a development fellow at the New York Immigration Coalition, an immigration advocacy and policy organization in Manhattan. She studied history and writing at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, MD.