A New York City fireman calls for 10 more rescue workers to make their way into the rubble of the World Trade Center. The Stony Brook University WTC Wellness program received a $60 million federal contract to go toward infrastructure costs associated with expanding healthcare services to people who were exposed to toxins from the attack. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Almost 16 years later, and the deadly toxins that escaped on that horrific Sept. 11 day still linger in the bodies of the first responders who risked their health to help those in need. Almost 16 years later, and John Feal has survived gangrene, an amputated foot and six or seven knee surgeries – today, about 75 percent of his body is arthritic. 

On April 12, the Stony Brook University WTC Wellness Program gave 9/11 heroes like Feal some hope, after receiving a $60 million federal contract award over the next five years. The contract, awarded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, will go toward infrastructure costs associated with expanding the center as well as healthcare services that serve over 10,000 patients, Dr. Benjamin Luft, the Edmund D. Pellegrino professor in the Stony Brook University School of Medicine and the director of the program, said in a news release.

This award is a remarkable commitment by NIOSH that enables us to help 9/11 responders who have multiple healthcare needs at every level, from their physical and mental health problems to monitoring the long-term effects yet to surface from exposures at ground zero,” Luft said in the release.

Feal, president of the FealGood Foundation, an advocacy group for 9/11 first responders in Nesconset, New York, and a first responder himself is also a patient at the Wellness Program clinic. While he may be rightfully biased, Feal and other patients have come to develop personal relationships with the staff at the center and have become a family, he said. 

“I advocated for the program to be put in place,” Feal said. “And not just for myself but for tens of thousands of other people, and I don’t want to sound biased but I have a great working relationship with them and they actually care.”

Feal and other first responders were responsible for helping pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act in 2011. The bill ensures health services and treatment for the people who were exposed to the toxins from the tragedy for the next 75 years, especially those in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

“The grant is a blessing and you know before the bill got passed. … All World Trade Center health programs were just monitoring us and would give us two aspirins,” Feal said. “And then the bill got passed then they were actually treating us, giving us prescriptions and medications, paying for medications, and now they’re offering so many other things to men and women, uniform and not uniform that are sick and dying.”

Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., president of Stony Brook University, praised the program as well in a university news release.

“Stony Brook’s WTC Wellness Program has helped turn the tragedy of 9/11 for our courageous responders into a beacon of hope with healthcare experts and resources that make a real difference in their lives and well-being,” he said. “This transformational grant will help to expand services for this important patient population and is a testament to the program’s long-term commitment and impact in caring for them.”

The WTC Wellness Program currently provides a collaborative care model, Luft said. This model integrates specialists and doctors from pulmonology, radiology, oncology, psychiatry and dermatology with other specialists like nurses and pharmacists, according to the university’s news release.

LaKia R. Bryant, M.P.A, a health communications specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, pointed out that while both a federal grant and a federal contract are used as mechanisms for funding, they both have very different requirements.

“The government uses grants and cooperative agreements as a means of assisting researchers in developing research for the public good, whereas it uses contracts as a means of procuring a service for the benefit of the government,” Bryant said. “Failure to deliver under a federal contract can have potential legal or financial consequences for the contractor.”

A performance work statement issued by the CDC outlines what the WTC Wellness Program funding can be used for. The university can use the money awarded for various activities, including providing periodic monitoring examinations, diagnosis and treatment services and other member services to WTC first responders and survivors.

Feal, while supportive of the wellness center, is also aware that figuring out the right treatments to combat the toxins from 9/11 will take time and great effort.

No doctor or scientist went to school for 9/11, so those doctors and scientists are now catching up to what we said for years about that we got sick from the aftermath of 9/11,” Feal said. “We have 75 years to get it right and that means the advocate and the elected officials and the lawyers and all the doctors at the WTC Health Center have to work to get it right.”

Congressman Lee Zeldin, a Republican from New York, stresses that it’s important for the government to support first responders.

“We can never do enough to support these American heroes, who selflessly risked their lives at such an important time in our nation’s history,” Zeldin said in a news release. “This grant is an essential way to remember and honor the brave sacrifices made in the aftermath of the attack on our nation.”