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9-11 Hero And Chairman Of Medicine At Newark Beth Israel Medical Center Is Featured In A New British Documentary About September 11 And A Photo Retrospective In Jersey City
Story Number is : 092211108
Saint Barnabas Health Care System

Even ten years later, the memory of September 11 and the events at Ground Zero has not faded for Robert Lahita, MD, PhD, Chairman of the Department of Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. On thatterrible day, as the Twin Towers fell in the background, he was at the epicenter of a makeshift outdoor emergency medical operation that triaged 1,000 injured victims in one day, 200 of whom he personally treated. The entire operation took place on a condemned pier across the river on the Jersey side, which soon came to resemble a war zone.

“It was an extraordinary day,” recall Dr. Lahita, who was, at the time, EMS Medical Director for Hudson County. “I had 20 years of special training for emergency operations and had assisted at train wrecks, but nothing prepared me for anything like this.”

Dr. Lahita’s account of this terrible day in American history is a part of a televised documentary in England called “9/11 Emergency Room” that recently aired to five star reviews. He is also featured in an exhibit of photography called, “From Across the River,” by Sandra Swieder at Art House Productions, Jersey City, on view through September 15. The exhibit features the events of September 11th from the New Jersey perspective.

In the documentary, he recalls treating a wide variety of injuries from broken pelvises and crushed bones to first and second degree burn victims and patients withasthma attacks. For six hours straight, Dr. Lahita worked tirelessly, alongwith two nurses and a group of paramedics, to bring help and comfort in a world turned upside down. Several members of his paramedic team were killed when they went to assist at the site before the second tower fell.

With only his EMS truck, which he drove from Jersey City to the pier, Dr. Lahita had no ability to communicate with hospitals once the communications equipment on the top of the towers was destroyed and so police units transported supplies to his dock, and creativity was employed.

“Office chairs were used as makeshift stretchers, venetian blinds were used as splints, and we used all of the small first aid kits found in office buildings,” he relates. “It was like a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit in a war zone.”

For Dr. Lahita and his team, the worst part were the rumors that quickly spread to his operational unit that America was under attack, that the White House had been destroyed, and that poison gas had been released in the city.

“Every time we were buzzed by jets, which came through in very low altitudes, I thought we were going to be strafed by bullets,” says Dr. Lahita, who tried to establish a counseling tent at the scene and subsequently sought six months of counseling for himself after the event. “Even now, returning to the site is very emotional. It was such a traumatic time.”

After the towers fell, he visited Ground Zero to help survivors, and the scene had the surreal quality of a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

“I have never seen anything like it,” says Dr. Lahita. “It was like Armageddon with dust and debris and burning cars and clothes hanging from trees.

For his heroics efforts, Dr. Lahita was recognized by Former President George Bush,Former Governor Jim McGreevey, the America Red Cross and even the American Rescue Dog Association for the triage and treatment that he provided to rescue dogs with burned paws and other injuries.

Dr. Lahita’s family and even his own two Labrador retrievers, provided support and comfort in the difficult days following 9-11, and helped him to come to terms with the traumatic events of that he witnessed.

“Tens years can heal a lot of wounds,” he adds, “But you don’t ever forget.”

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