Howard Rudolph struggles to breathe.
To keep his lungs clear, the 55-year-old Rudolph inhales Himalayan salts from a ceramic light-green pipe for about 20 minutes a day.
He was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which may be a direct result of inhaling the toxic debris of burned fuel, glass, plastic, and metal during the month he spent in 2001 at Ground Zero as a mental health counselor to firefighters and police officers who were part of the rescue and recovery efforts.
Rudolph is reminded of that fateful day and the aftermath all the time — not just on September 11. Memories of 9/11 resurface for him every time he coughs, feels short of breath or senses the tightness in his chest.
“I’ll remember the attacks on the World Trade Center for the rest of my life because of this condition I have been diagnosed with,” Rudolph said. “I was there. I got hurt.”
Symptoms of his condition had been showing for years.
“Six years ago I knew that something was not right,” he said. “But I just blew it off.”
When he would get the flu, it lingered for months.
“At some points I’d cough to a point where my head is going to explode.”
Twice he had to go to the hospital emergency room because he could not catch his breath.
An official diagnosis was not done until this summer after he finally had a CAT scan done that showed his disease.
Post-Sept.11-related diseases among rescue and recovery workers at Ground Zero are on the rise, according to studies.
The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York this week released a nine-year ongoing study of 27,000 Sept. 11 first responders, according to which 42 percent of the people evaluated had abnormal lung function tests indicative of lung injury. From the total number of people studied, 28 percent had asthma and 42 percent had sinusitis.
Another study by the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences evaluated 10,116 firefighters present at Ground Zero. From them, 332 had developed persistent cough and respiratory problems by 2004.
“It has been shown that the first responders who spent time at Ground Zero after Sept. 11 were exposed to a lot of toxic dust,” said Shirin Shafazand, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. “That mix could later manifest itself in some abnormalities as obstructive lung diseases.”
Shafazand said that although symptoms may develop early on, people usually brush them off as nothing serious. It takes a couple of years for the symptoms to turn into a full-blown disease.
“At Ground Zero there was such an overwhelmingly large exposure to toxic dust that it was a unique set of circumstances,” she said. “The impact was certainly more dramatic than at a regular fire.”
Rudolph, a Broward sheriff’s deputy for more than 28 years, is a licensed mental health counselor with a master’s in psychology from Nova Southeastern University.
He went to Ground Zero as part of a Critical Incidents Stress Management team summoned by The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an agency that handles the trade and transportation network between New York and New Jersey. He got there immediately after the attacks for two weeks and then returned several months later for another dozen days.
For 16 hours a day, he provided counseling to firefighters and police officers who relentlessly went in and out beneath the wreckage trying to retrieve victims.
“Sometimes you would have to force these guys to leave and take a break because no one wanted to leave,” Rudolph said. “They are always hoping to find someone out there breathing.”
Brian Tierney, a lieutenant at The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was in charge of search teams and coordinating staging areas during the post-Sept. 11 recovery efforts and met Rudolph days after the terrorist attacks.
“You can’t measure how much help he was,” Tierney said. “Even the simplest things like him telling crews, ‘Look, you need to go hydrate,’ were important. He was exactly what we needed.”
Rudolph also went below the wreckage so that he could gain a better understanding of the type of stress rescue and recovery workers were experiencing and thus be better able help them, Tierney said.
Recently at his Davie home, Rudolph browsed through the photos he took at Ground Zero. The beams of one of the World Trade Center towers lay stacked one on top of the other, steel on top of steel, all 110 floors leveled.
“Once you went down a couple of levels, you did not see any daylight,” he said.
Ten years later, the images of the Sept. 11 aftermath haunt Rudolph as much as the word “progressive” from the diagnosis his pulmonologist gave him.
“There’s nothing scarier than when the doctor looks at you and says ‘You have an incurable, progressive disease,’ ” Rudolph said. “I only wish I didn’t have to deal with this for what I did back then. This is not how I want my life to end.”
Aside from the Himalayan salts inhalation, he takes an array of other alternative medicines to try to stop his illness from worsening.
At 5 each morning before he heads to work at Port Everglades, he takes a tablespoon of an olive leaf antioxidant. The liquid leaves a harsh mint taste on his tongue. Then, it trickles down his throat, burning his lungs.
He washes it all down with Himalayan salt chunks diluted into a half-liter water bottle.
“What a way to start out your morning, huh?” said Rudolph.
Before bedtime the affliction usually worsens. The tightness in his upper chest gets tighter. Breathing gets harder.
That is when he drinks ginger root in boiling water flavored by honey that helps break the mucus built up in his throat.
“If you told me I’d have to stand on my head to feel better, I’d do it,” he said. “It is the scariest thing in the world when I can’t catch my breath.
When he is at work, an emergency inhaler rests in the front pocket of his white, pressed uniform shirt. He has had to use it at least twice.
“I do panic a little bit,” he said. “But that only makes it worse.”
So far he has filed a workers compensation claim with the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which will take care of his medical bills.
While his lungs keep 9/11 in his thoughts, Rudolph said what happened that day should never be forgotten.
“Since I’ve gotten this condition, I think about Sept. 11 all the time,” he said. “But if I could turn back the clock, I would still go back and help out the heroes and give counseling to those firefighters and police officers.”