Published on Sep 11, 2020

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN WHYTE: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. Today marks the 19th anniversary of September 11th. Joining me today to discuss this milestone, as well as how COVID-19 is impacting 9/11 survivors, is John Feal.

On September 17th, 2001, after five intense days of recovery work at ground zero, a steel beam fell and crushed John's foot, a construction worker and US army veteran. He spent the next several months in the hospital enduring gangrene, several surgeries, and septic shock. Because he and the thousands of first responders who suffered injuries or developed respirator problems, rare cancers, and PTSD initially received so little help from the government for long term care and financial assistance, John started the Feel Good Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading awareness and educating the public about the catastrophic health effects of 9/11 for first responders and helping them get the financial assistance for much needed treatments. John, thanks for joining me.

JOHN FEAL: Uh, thank you for having me, John, and um, thank you for the introduction and bringing me back, uh, memory lane. Um, you know, we talk about my injury. Um, you know, what a lot of people don't know, physically I was altered, um, but mentally, I was altered too. And um, spending 11 weeks in the hospital with gangrene and becoming septic, um, I could block that out. It's the mental part.

I was diagnosed with four-- by four doctors with post-traumatic, but when I got out of the hospital, I went from 185 pounds to 120 pounds. And um, not only did I know right away there was something physically wrong with me, and I would have to learn how to walk again and, and, and adapt to a-- an amputation. Um, I went to therapy for 2 1/2 years. I did EMDR for 2 1/2 years, and that, that saved my life. You know, the injury humbled me.

You know, uh, five minutes before that injury, I thought I was John Wayne and Bo Jackson. I thought I was the world's best weekend athlete ever, and um, you know, that injury and having Kobe this year, uh, on top of pneumonia, those are the only two times in my life that I've actually been afraid. And I don't say that to be preten-- I just don't have that DNA to be afraid of anything, and both of them not only humbled me but scared me. And um, I'm-- I'm blessed, and I'm lucky to be here.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, tell us how you're doing today. You-- you clearly have had a rough few months over a rough few years. How are you feeling today, John?

JOHN FEAL: I'm still, you know, I'm not the same person I was after my injury on 9-- at 9/17/01, and I'm not the same person after Kobe. Um, physically and mentally it, um, I'm just not the same, and I'm not going to say I'm worse off. I-- I know I'm not as fast as I used to be. I can't jump as high as I used to, but I'm smarter.

I see things clearer. I smell different. I hear different, um, and I think every time something like this happens to me, it-- it, uh-- it injects empathy and sympathy into me, knowing that there are other people worse off than me. I don't need 9/11 or my injury to define me.


JOHN FEAL: My journey started way before that.


JOHN FEAL: My journey is far from over, and um, I lost my mother in 2006. I lost my sister in 2014, both to cancer. And um, I look over my shoulder every day, whether I'm going to get a 9/11-related cancer, because I see so many men and women getting 9/11 cancer. And um, I-- whatever, however long I have time on this earth, I'm going to take advantage of it.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, good. You're talking, you know, about what you're doing, and-- and I love hearing that. And the foundation that you started is more than just about fundraising. Isn't that right?

JOHN FEAL: Yeah. Well, uh, you know, we don't fundraise as much as we used to, um, because of all the legislation. You know, we've gotten 13 pieces of legislation passed-- five in D.C., five in Albany, two in New Jersey, and one in Michigan. That legislation, uh, if you combine them all together, it's about $38, $40 billion.


JOHN FEAL: And a lot of people are now getting help because of that, but we still have more work to do. Um, as a matter of fact, this Tuesday coming up, on September 15th, I'm going back to Washington D.C. with Jon Stewart. And uh, we're going to introduce legislation for veterans and soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, uh, who were affected by the, uh, aftermath of the toxins of the burn pits. And they have the same cancers as 9/11 responders, same respiratory illnesses, and they started those burn pits with, uh, jet fuel.

And everybody knows, jet fuel has all of those toxins in it. We're going to continue to advocate and help pass legislation. We'll continue to donate, when we can.


JOHN FEAL: Um, but you know, since we started, uh, 15 years ago, we've donated about $78 million.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah. Now, what about people that'll say, you know, the towers fell 19 years ago. Why-- why are you still doing this 19 years later?

JOHN FEAL: Yeah. So um, if I was a lawyer-- and I'm not-- and I was in a courtroom. And I turned to the jury, and I said, everybody's immune system's different. Have a great day. I'd-- I'd be the best lawyer in the country.

Um, you're a doctor. You know. Um doctors, um, have prove-- scientists has proven, because science gave us validity when we said we were sick, and elected officials said we were making it up. Everybody's immune system's different.

The average age of the 9/11 responder was 38 years old on 9/11. Now, you're looking at 57, 58, 59 on average. We still got guys in their 40's though, and women.


JOHN FEAL: So the absorption through the nose, mouth, and skin of those toxins, they just all have different latency periods. So more and more people are getting sick now. So 19 years later, yeah, we still have to advocate. We still have to ensure people get in the World Trade Center Health Program, so they get free health care. And we still have to make sure people file a claim to get compensated for their illnesses, because for the rest-- the rest of their lives are altered.

JOHN WHYTE: Do you get frustrated that sometimes you feel you have to fight for these things, and it shouldn't be that difficult to get some of these benefits, to get the recognition, to acknowledge the science?

JOHN FEAL: Well, I mean, you know, take COVID-19 right now. Science and politics is having a boxing match in front of our eyes. It's like a prize fight. Right? It's MMA, science versus politics.

I mean, the first week of March, a week before I got sick, I did a video-- I posted it on Facebook-- for the 9/11 community. I said, everybody heed the advice of the experts and the scientists. Take this serious, because we compromised. If you get COVID, it will kill you.


JOHN FEAL: A week later, I got it. Um, but we want to ensure that everybody heeds the advice and the guidelines of the CDC and the federal and state government and make sure that their staying socially distanced, and we're in a mess. Listen, I got COVID-19. I still wear a mask wherever I go.


JOHN FEAL: Nobody told me definitively, you can't get it again. I do not want to get COVID-19 ever again. That scared me, and it kicked my butt.

JOHN WHYTE: You know, do we think survivors are-- are more at risk?




JOHN WHYTE: And more impacted? Is that what we're seeing?

JOHN FEAL: Yeah. Absolutely we know of about 3 1/2, 4 dozen 9/11 responders who had cancer or survived cancer from 9/11 who have died from COVID-19.


JOHN FEAL: Um, and if that's how many we know with limited resources, there's probably many more. Um, you know? So everybody, I don't care if you're a 9/11 responder or living across the country.

Um, you know, in the beginning, they called cops, firefighters, doctors, nurses frontline workers. They're all last line [AUDIO OUT] The front line of defense was the American people. Those doctors and nurses were the last line of defense.


JOHN FEAL: And the American people failed in a lot of ways, because we put a heavy burden on those doctors, nurses, EMS, firefighters, and police officers, when we could have done a better job as Americans.

JOHN WHYTE: But John, are we seeing that now? Is that a fair comparison to say the same thing is happening now? With the availability that we saw challenges with in terms of PPE, the challenges with testing, is-- is this the same issue with--

JOHN FEAL: Yeah. Why not?

JOHN WHYTE: Whether we call them first responders or last responders? We know who we're talking about.

JOHN FEAL: Yeah. I-- I still think we're going through issues, um, where, uh, these doctors and nurses and-- and, uh, first responders aren't given the proper, uh, respiratory gear. Uh, they aren't given the proper, uh.

JOHN WHYTE: Protective gear.

JOHN FEAL: PPEs, yeah, and uh, you know, they're not getting supplies fast enough. You know, people are still getting sick. We average about 1,000 deaths a-- a-- a day across the country. You know, we're-- we're accepting new norms, and that's what I'm afraid of, because this isn't my norm.

Because we're accepting new norms across the country, where almost 200,000 people have died from COVID, or uh, a few thousand people have died because of 9/11. Or tens of thousands have died because of war, and that's the new norm. So unless it affects you directly, you know, there's 330 million people in the United States. 3% make up the military. 1% of 1% made up the 9/11 community.

200,000 makes up less than 1% of 1% in the-- in the country. So people accept that as a new norm, but if you have any ounce of empathy or sympathy, and you really are the-- a human being, then you don't accept this for a new norm, because this is disturbing. And it bothers me, and it bothers me to the point where I want to help as many people as I can.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, tell us what's behind you in-- in this image. What's-- what's on those walls?

JOHN FEAL: Um, you know, a lot of them are accolades, and um, I ran out of room. So a lot of them are in boxes, but um, you know, it's-- it's great to be noticed for your work. Um, there's a couple that mean a lot.

I mean, I have a Congressional Medal of Honor for civilians Above and Beyond. That's voted on by the surviving Congressional Medal of Honor winners. That one means a lot to me.

Um, but a lot of them are, uh-- really, what it is is my journey. Um, because 9/11 didn't start my journey. It was just an important chapter in my life, um, and I don't know where my journey ends.

And um, I think the best part of the last 19 years, because I always try to find the positive, are the friendships, uh, more so than getting legislation passed, donating money, building a park on Long Island. Um, the-- the lifelong friendships, um, that I've made mean more to me than anything. And knowing that I don't know when my journey ends and keep doing what I'm doing, um, is--

You know the old saying, you only live once? I disagree. I think you only die once, and you live every day. And um, that's how I want to live my life. Uh, in my will, in my tombstone, they won't say my name and date of birth and date of passing. It's going to say he tried.

JOHN WHYTE: Is that you advice to COVID survivors?

JOHN FEAL: Yeah. I think that's my advice to everybody who's going through something. You know, we all have a story to tell. We're all going through something. Um, some worse than others, you know, but how tall is tall? How fat is fat? It's perception, and how bad you really have it?

JOHN WHYTE: What else does the tragedy of 9/11 teach us about how we can more effectively manage this pandemic that occurs once a century?

JOHN FEAL: Yeah. I-- well, one, it taught us, uh, if this didn't humble you or wake you up, then you're not human, but it should also told us that we're vulnerable. We're vulnerable to pandemics. We're vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

We're vulnerable to mother nature, when she lays her wrath upon us with tornadoes and hurricanes. We've seen that recently. Um, I think we need to do a better job in treating each other. Um, you know? Um, we can learn a lot from each other.

Here's the problem. We're living in such a toxic environment now, if we bottled September 12th of 2001, we'd be in a better place right now. Because it didn't matter your agenda, your political affiliation, your income. It didn't matter if you were tall, short, fat, skinny, black, white, Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, we all came together, not as Americans, we all came together as human beings. And um, I believe good triumphed over evil-- evil, and I also believe charity triumphed over anger, and we move forward as one.

And now, somewhere along the line-- bad politics, poor leadership, um, a 24-hour news cycle that hops on one story, makes you choose a side-- um, we all finger point at each other and-- and use the word hate so much. Where we're afraid to stop and listen instead of-- instead of yelling and screaming at each other. You know, when you-- when you actually stop and listen and try to understand each other, um, you're burning calories, and we've had a lot more healthy people in this country as well.

Um, you know, this isn't my norm. You know, when you can remove yourself-- I believe in God. I believe in a god, but when you remove yourself from a religion that, uh, dictates how you live your life [INAUDIBLE] you're free. When you remove yourself from a political affiliation but believe in the political process, you have found your center, your chi. You're free.


JOHN FEAL: And I respond to everything I do. I don't react, because that means it was a knee-jerk reaction, and you're using emotions. I prefer to use math and weigh the pros and cons to everything I do and how I'm going to help people, where I can respond and better help an individual or the masses.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, you're right. The lessons that we've learned from 9/11 can help us, you know, in managing this crisis, John.

JOHN FEAL: But look-- look-- look at every crisis, whether it's Katrina or Sandy, we all had a common enemy or a common descent, and we all came together. This pandemic was the complete bipa-- it didn't bring us together like it should have. We should not be accepting people dying.

Those are families being torn apart. Those are families losing their income that now-- now can't provide for their families and pay their utilities and put food on the table. When did we stop becoming human beings? That-- I just can't-- I can't live or accept that.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm, and it's an important reminder of where we need to be going in order to truly, you know, manage this pandemic and come out stronger, as you allude to. John, I want to thank you for your advocacy, for your leadership, for your fight to help keep survivors healthy, um, you know, and get the services that they need, as well as helping us think through, you know, how do we manage this pandemic?

JOHN FEAL: I appreciate that. Thank you for having me.

JOHN WHYTE: And thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context.