The Afterlife of Trauma, Near and Far

Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, is an oncology nurse navigator and writes a monthly post for this blog.

Mixed media illustration by Julianna Paradisi

Mixed media illustration by Julianna Paradisi

The alarm clock rang noisily. I wasn’t ready to surrender the cozy cocoon of my bed and venture into the emotional turbulence of this particular day: The 14th anniversary of 9/11.

The week leading up to it was rough. My stepfather had quadruple coronary bypass surgery in another city. Although it was successful, and his children were there to help and support my mother, I’ve felt guilty for not being there myself, because I’m the nurse in the family, and I feel responsible for every medical problem that arises for the ones I love—even if I’m not really needed.

Besides this, at work we’re in one of those cycles where every patient gets bad news: The cancer has invaded the borders of another organ, or the patient is incredibly young for the diagnosis that’s been received. Six months into my career as an oncology nurse navigator, I realize the emotional toll from secondary trauma is often more related to a previous job as a pediatric intensive care nurse than that of my more recent position as an oncology infusion nurse.

Because of all this, I decided to minimize my media exposure to the trauma of 9/11 this year. I stayed off of Facebook, and instead of watching the morning news I listened to Lyle Lovett croon the delightfully absurd lyric, “Penguins are so sensitive to my needs.”

It almost worked, but I share an office with a colleague who lived in the New York area at the time of the attacks. When she brought up 9/11, I asked her about it; she told me her experience, and my heart broke open. Then I told her how in 2001, here in Portland, Oregon, we watched the horror on TV with the rest of the world. But I also worked in an office at a hospital, where a colleague started a flurry of emails, explaining that her friends’ son worked in Two World Trade Center and was missing. His father had seen the first tower attacked on TV. He called his son, who answered the phone from his work cubicle, unaware of the disaster outside.

“Get out of the building, it’s not safe,” his father ordered. “Get out now!” He hung up, and that was the last he’d heard from his son. My colleague’s emails asked for prayers and positive energy for her friends and their son.

Late in the afternoon, we learned that her friends’ son had called. He’d escaped before the second tower was attacked. Because of his father’s warning, he had persuaded the other people in his department to flee with him. All of them were safe.

In telling the story, the emotion from 14 years ago flooded forward, as fresh and raw as it was back then.

My colleague and I talked some more, until our words were spent. Then we went to work contacting cancer patients, helping them through their personal crises.

At the end of the day, I felt weary, empty.

On my way home, I saw a tall, thin man, more hippie than hipster, walking down the street. His stork-like gait and mid-back-length ponytail caught my eye, but it was the bouquet of flowers he carried that held my imagination. He was bringing someone flowers: a visual expression of love on this day of sorrow.

It was only a small gesture, but it reminded me why I’m a nurse.

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2016-11-21T13:01:58+00:00 September 28th, 2015|career, narratives, Nursing, nursing perspective, Patients|3 Comments

About the Author:

Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, finds inspiration where science, humanity, and art converge, creating compelling images as both a writer and a painter. She is the author of, and also blogs frequently for and, the blog of the American Journal of Nursing (AJN).


  1. Jacob Molyneux October 2, 2015 at 11:47 am

    I’m sorry about the delay in approving your account of your experiences on that day. It somehow got picked up by our blog’s spam filter and I’m only just seeing it.

  2. […] The Afterlife of Trauma, Near and Far […]

  3. Mary Anne Rizzolo, EdD, RN, ANEF, FAAN September 28, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    I was in Reston, Virginia on 9/11 with leaders of all of the nursing organizations. The ANA had a “Call to the Profession” meeting to plan the “Agenda for Nursing’s Future.” We were all in breakout meetings when we heard the news. Everyone rushed to make phone calls. My thoughts probably were similar to thousands of others – where are the people I love, and are they safe? — followed by trying to comprehend the horror. How could anyone do such a thing? ….those poor innocent people in the Towers…. and their families…. what is happening to our world.
    My husband and younger son often traveled into Manhattan on business, and I had trouble reaching them initially, but thankfully, I soon learned they were safe. My older son lives in Virginia and drove past the Pentagon every day on his way to work. We had dinner the night before, and he quickly called to say he was safe and glad I was in Virginia and not in New York. I worked for the National League for Nursing and our office was 3 blocks from the World Trade Center. I was able to get through to the office once and learned that everyone was safe there, but not all employees had arrived yet. When I tried 30 minutes later, I could not get through. Ruth Corcoran, who was the CEO of the NLN at that time, was distraught because her home was in Battery Park City, adjacent to the World Trade Center and she could not reach her husband. I retreated to my hotel room to watch the TV coverage. I was talking to my son when he said, “OMG, the second tower just fell.” I replied firmly, “No. They are just replaying the fall of the South tower.” It took several minutes for me to believe what I was seeing. It was incomprehensible. I was not ready to let myself experience the full reality of what was happening.
    I could write so much more about what happened in the aftermath. Everyone had stories to tell; stories they NEEDED to tell. It certainly was more than a year before it was not a daily topic of conversation among my colleagues. One set of windows looked directly down on the site from our office on the 33rd floor. When we were allowed to return to the office 3 weeks later, I looked down every night before I left the office, then one day I just could not look anymore. A few months later, I was drawn to the window once again and saw the huge trucks lining up empty on one block, then departing full of rubble on the next block. The site was disappearing in front of my eyes. I went back to my nightly ritual.
    Our transportation was disrupted for a year, and the displaced rats were a problem, particularly in the subway stations. Many small businesses had to close because they could not survive the waiting period before the funding came in. And an eerie quiet descended on the streets of lower Manhattan in the evenings – there was nobody there.
    Each anniversary brings back the memories, and many are as vivid as the day it happened. Mixed in with the images, the personal stories of the people who lost family and friends return as well. And then I listen to the reading of the names and the tolling of the bells and the tears come.

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