Staten Island Pharmacist Remembers September 11th

Sometimes lending an ear can be the best medicine.

Each year, Americans are reminded of the grief and pain the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, brought to the United States.

It is hard to imagine that 16 years have passed since the blue skies turned black from the burning of the Twin Towers. Those alive during this devastating day can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

First responders rushed to the scene, with many losing their lives in the process. Communities of mothers, fathers, doctors, pharmacists, and teachers alike, joined together to rebuild the city and comfort one another in a time of despair.

In an interview with Specialty Pharmacy Times, Roger Malerba, CEO and president of Hylan Medicine Cabinet and national advisor for Good Neighbor Pharmacy, looks back on the day that changed America forever and the role his pharmacy played during the crisis.

SPT: Where were you on September 11th?

Malerba: I was driving to work. I lived in New Jersey at the time and the pharmacy we owned was on Staten Island. As I approached the outer bridge, black SUVs cut off the bridge and closed it. It was probably about 15 minutes after the first plane hit the towers. We were listening to it on the radio and they said it seems there was an incident in New York City, and then they said what it was. At that point, you couldn’t get into Staten Island. They closed all the bridges, all the access. I ended up driving back home that day—–the roads were empty. Everyone was in a solemn mood.

SPT: What role did you and your pharmacy play during the crisis?

Malerba: We were as engaged as we could be. There was a lot of loss of people on Staten Island or people that knew a lot of people on Staten Island. Our first response was to send needed products down to Ground Zero. Masks for the firemen and the police, bandages, whatever we had first-aid wise. We also ordered a bunch of stuff to get down to them because they didn’t have anything. They were just doing what they could do, and unfortunately didn’t have the materials they needed, so we sent a bunch down to Ground Zero.

Immediately after, the biggest thing we did was listen. I think that’s what independent pharmacies do best. A lot of people came in that just needed to talk and needed someone that potentially knew what they were going through and would listen. It went from people who suffered very close loss—–husbands and wives––to people that knew people that had lost someone, to people that were just scared; we were a sounding board. Monetarily, yes, we did some things, but I think the greatest thing we did for our community was listen and kind of let them know that we are all together and we are all in it together.

SPT: Were these existing patients who would come in looking to talk or others?

Malerba: It was both. I think probably the most intense were people who kind of wandered into the store. You know your regular patients and you can tell when something is wrong, and you would approach them. “Hey what’s up? Is something wrong?” All you had to do was open that door, and then all the emotions just flowed out. They needed to cry, they needed to mourn, they needed to understand or feel like they weren’t alone. And I think we tried to provide that.

SPT: Have you had any patients who were at Ground Zero who developed negative health effects from the attack?

Malerba: We saw a lot of those patients, unfortunately a good amount of them have passed. They’re mostly first responders. I would say a majority of them were firemen with lung disorders. We do have a few that are left that do come to us, and it’s a shame. You honor them as much as you can, but you pity what they’re going through.

SPT: Can you describe the aftermath?

Malerba: The event wasn’t a one day event. It lasted forever. I could vividly remember seeing a tractor trailer coming over the Verrazano bridge with firetrucks that were smashed down to maybe a foot and a half thick. It kind of humbles you and puts it into perspective. I mean you see the pictures of [the towers] coming down, but when you see that…They would drive over the bridge and come down boulevards — and you think oh my god, the sheer force of it… pancake firetrucks. And I’m not talking about 1 firetruck, they had them stacked on top of each other.

In Staten Island, they created a whole section of the dump, which became an area for the remains of Ground Zero to examine. We take care of a lot of those sanitary workers who were scraping through remains trying to find anything to give back to a family member.

With 9/11, the people of Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, they lived with it because there was always something. No matter where you went, you heard something, you saw something, and I think that was the hardest part. When people couldn’t escape. There was no getting over it. There are people on 9/11 who read the names of their family members they lost and they are connected by immediate loss, but so many other people were just connected by the devastation of it and can’t get past it. And I think that’s the difficult thing.

SPT: September 11th brought a lot of fear among the American people, what fears did you see with your patients?

Malerba: The one thing that 9/11 did, in a broad spectrum, was if you remember shortly after, we started having all these scares [with] anthrax. I remember patients getting concerned, “what if they infiltrate our drug channel?” Aerosol anthrax in inhalers and other things. There were drugs on the market that people were getting prescriptions for that I knew they didn’t need, but it was prophylactic just because they worked in the city and they were worried about an anthrax outbreak. Us being a pharmacy, that was one of the things people were afraid of, was were their medications going to be safe. For years, September 11th created this whole cascading amount of fears that didn’t exist before, of what was coming next.