Sunday, October 28, 2001

Donna Joyner, the outreach coordinator at Baptist Hospital’s burn center, received the e-mail Sept. 18.

There was nothing flashy about the appeal, no mention of heroism or 12-hour shifts. Just this – “Three shifts of 15 burn nurses are needed to go to New York to help care for burn patients at Cornell.”
It went without saying that the patients had been burned in the attack on the World Trade Center.

Joyner had no second thoughts. Neither did Robin Gibson, a colleague in the burn unit here. They knew they were needed. And so they went. They left Sept. 26 and returned home Oct. 9.

We’ve heard a lot about the firefighters who acted on instinct and rushed into the burning towers as thousands fled. They are our heroes, a steady image of strength in a time of near-hysteria and fear.

Nurses are cut from the same cloth of quiet competence. They may not be risking their lives. But they are trained for work that most of us lack the stomach for. When the call came, they went.

The New York Weill Cornell Burn Center on the East Side of Manhattan is world famous. But without help from such nurses as Joyner and Gibson, it could not have managed. Altogether 55 answered the appeal for help. “They were a gift from God,” said Robert Dembicki, the Cornell center’s nurse manager. “I don’t know what we would have done without them.”

Ready to respond

On Sept. 11, every burn unit on the East Coast was ready to receive patients from New York. But in the end there were 21 patients. Almost everyone else at the twin towers that morning either made it out alive or died. The burn patients were all taken to Weill Cornell. One died in the emergency room. Six more have died since then. Seven are still in the hospital. Seven have gone home – nursed back to health by nurses who went there simply because they were asked to go.

The patients Joyner and Gibson nursed needed constant, one-on-one care. Some have burns covering more than 80 percent of their bodies. They were caught in a flash of fire high up in the towers or burned on the ground floor when a fireball swept over their backs. Joyner and Gibson didn’t hear many of these stories. Most of the patients were on ventilators and sedated. But they could see their faces contort in pain when they changed their bandages. They learned their life stories from family photos hanging on the wall.

“That’s what reminded me that they were innocent victims of a terrible, terrible tragedy,” Joyner said.

Gibson’s first patient was a 40-year-old woman, just about her own age, named Jennieann Maffeo. According to newspaper reports, Maffeo was waiting for a bus outside the north tower when the hijacked airplane crashed and a shower of burning fuel fell on her. The heat was so intense that it melted her fingernails.

Gibson nursed her for four nights straight. She kept her breathing regular. She monitored her blood pressure. She hooked liter after liter of fluid to her IV. “She was so sick. It was minute to minute,” Gibson said.

Maffeo died Monday night after 41days at the burn center. She was buried yesterday at the Resurrection Cemetery on Staten Island. Nurses are accustomed to death. It comes with the job. But Maffeo’s shook Gibson. Maybe it was Maffeo’s age. Or the Italian meal her family brought Gibson out of gratitude.

Sept. 11 might have been just the beginning of terrorism on our shores. Now there’s anthrax. What next? Smallpox? Poison in our food? More hijackings or bombs?

But one thing is certain. If the call for help comes again, Gibson and Joyner will pack up and go. They’re nurses. It’s what they do.