NEW YORK (Reuters) - On September 11, 2001, Lila Nordstrom was taking an architecture class on the 10th floor of Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, overlooking the World Trade Center.
“Suddenly we heard a huge explosion, and we looked out the window, and there was a fireball on top of the World Trade Center,” she recalled 20 years later.
Quickly, she made her way to the back door exit.
“We weren’t really given any instructions beyond ‘run north.’ And so I walked down the stairs. I stepped into the mass of people who were walking uptown. And then the second tower started to fall immediately. And so everyone started to run, and I wound up in kind of a stampede.”
Nordstrom, who was asthmatic, was back at her school about a month later, but the area’s debris and dust remained.
She quickly noticed something was not right.
“People started to develop like chronic coughs, and nosebleeds, and things. The school nurse’s line was so long that you couldn’t get in.”
Years later, she understood the full health impact of 9/11 as some fellow students got cancer and her own asthma worsened, she said. Many first responders and those in the area who survived the initial destruction of the World Trade Center later developed diseases that have been linked to the toxic dust that was stirred up.
In 2006, Nordstrom started StuyHealth, an advocacy focused on helping young adults get access to the same healthcare that first responders received.
“I got involved in this issue because I couldn’t afford asthma medication that’s incredibly common and very affordable in other countries,” said Nordstrom, now 37. “I think that my whole experience after 9/11 would have been different if I had already had easy and affordable access to healthcare.”
Initially designed to help civilian victims of 9/11, it later broadened its outreach to all disaster victims.
“I think a lot of the time in the 9/11 community, there’s this sense that we’re some kind of like exceptional victim because 9/11 was an exceptional moment,” Nordstrom said. “But disaster victims are all the same everywhere.”
Nordstrom’s memoir, “Some Kids Left Behind,” in which she describes her 20-year battle to get healthcare for 9/11 survivors, came out at the end of August.
Reporting by Aleksandra Michalska; Editing by Lisa Shumaker
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