Dana Nelson experienced a pivotal year in 2020. The 34-year-old teacher gave birth to her son in January as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded.
“Then this past December of 2020, I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer,” Nelson said. It’s a rare form of cancer that can be aggressive and difficult to treat.
“I have no genetic abnormalities that would lead to this, I don’t have a strong family history of breast cancer,” Nelson said. “I really feel in my heart pretty strongly that my exposure to... the pollution, the things going on after September 11th, have to do with that diagnosis.”
On September 11, 2001, Nelson was a 14-year-old freshman at Stuyvesant High School, blocks away from the World Trade Center. The federal government provides benefits to anyone who got sick after they lived or worked near the site of the 9/11 attacks. Many first responders are aware of these benefits, but there could be hundreds of thousands of other survivors just like Nelson who are also eligible. Some were just kids 20 years ago.
Nelson’s school closed right after the attacks, but reopened in October as Ground Zero still smoldered.
“We could smell it; we could see the smoke,” Nelson remembered the pile of rubble that burned for over three months. “I remember just constantly seeing street cleaning vehicles going up and down the streets because of this smoky sludge that was accumulating everywhere — on the streets and sidewalks.”
Meanwhile, police, firefighters and other first responders worked around the clock to clear debris. Nelson can remember the first time she thought it might not be safe for her and thousands of other classmates and teachers to be inside the school.
“They had people in our school testing the air quality, and those people were in protective gear,” Nelson said. “So we're just going about our business, going to our classes, and there was somebody in what I remember thinking looked like a spacesuit in the mind of a 14-year-old, walking around with a machine checking air quality.”
Nelson is one of hundreds of thousands of students, office workers and downtown residents who could be eligible for health care through the World Trade Center Health Program, and money from the Victim Compensation Fund.
Attorney Michael Barasch represents more than 25,000 survivors of the 9/11 attacks. That includes Nelson, one of his youngest clients.
“In the first six, seven years, 90% of my clients were firefighters, cops, EMT’s, sanitation workers, construction workers. In the last several years, it's been about 50/50, between the responders and the civilians,” Barasch said.
He said unions that represent police and firefighters worked hard to get the word out about the benefits. Still, many civilians who lived, worked or went to school near Ground Zero assume they don’t qualify because they’re not first responders. He estimated there could be as many as 375,000 of them.
Barasch said the key is for all survivors to register for the benefits now, even if they’re healthy.
“Because you need to prove you were there,” Barasch said. “You're going to need affidavits from other students, or co-workers. And the truth is in 10 or 20 years, or in 50 years, your witnesses may not be around when you get sick. So get them to sign affidavits for you now, even if you're currently healthy, and you should do it for them as well.”
Barasch said the World Trade Center Health Program covers treatment for 68 cancers and other illnesses, like asthma.
“The health program will pick up all your co-pays, all your deductibles,” Barasch said. “And if you don't have health insurance, it'll pay for all your medical coverage. And if the health program certifies an illness, then you are also entitled to compensation from the Victim Compensation Fund.”
The health program can use virtual medical visits to certify an illness is related to exposure at Ground Zero. Survivors have to show tax returns, school records or other proof that they were in the area after the attacks.
September 11 survivor Dana Nelson is waiting for the Victim Compensation Fund to approve her cancer claim. She hopes it will provide financial security for her, and her son.
“Being able to put some of that money away for my son for college, if, God forbid, something happened to me, if this disease progresses — having that cushion there for him is really important to me,” Nelson said.
She wants other people like her to know these benefits exist, and plan for the future.
“I want to be spreading the word and letting people know — who are young, who were down there — that this might be an outcome of our time at Ground Zero and downtown Manhattan,” she said.