9/11 survivor shares story of healing at Burke Rehabilitation

Photograph by Reece Alvarez.

 

On Sept. 11, 2001, Harry Waizer of Scarsdale was riding the elevator between the 78th floor lobby and his office at Cantor Fitzgerald’s headquarters in the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit the tower.

“…What I experienced was just a rocking, a sudden movement of the elevator, then a plummeting,” he says. “The elevator started falling and then it burst into flames.”

Waizer survived with burns over 45 percent of his body. Following a seven-week induced coma in New York-Presbyterian Hospital, he would go on to three intensive months at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, where he recently shared not the horror and pain of his trauma, but the joy and triumph of his healing during an intimate talk.

“I took some valuable lessons from 9/11 — from my personal aftermath. I have a deeper appreciation for the unpredictability of life, for the incredible medical caregivers we have that help us through the aftermath of whatever personal experiences we may have,” he says. “There is much in our lives we can’t control, but what I learned here at Burke is how to focus on the things that I could control.”

Under a team of specialists, including Dr. Richard Novich, director of Burke’s Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation program and occupational therapist Corina Waldrup, Waizer made what he describes as a full recovery.

“I live a normal life. The other stuff is just stuff,” he says.

But he is not unscathed. Waizer lives with significant scarring on his face and body as well as damage to his vocal chords and can still have minor difficulty with some basic motor functions.

“I was angry. I had moments of despair. I had moments of apathy,” he says. “There are so many things you do every day that you take for granted. Try buttoning a shirt with fingers that aren’t really working. I was 50 at the time and suddenly a toddler again, fumbling, straining to perform the simplest of tasks but lacking a toddler’s naturalness and the confidence it is all going to get better.”

Waizer was recovering at Burke with fellow Cantor Fitzgerald employee Lauren Manning, a senior vice president and partner with the financial services firm at the time of the attack.

“I used to refer to her as the Energizer Bunny,” he says. “I would be on the treadmill for 20 minutes and there she was two treadmills over doing 30 minutes at a higher pace. But that was OK. You work at your own pace.”

While Manning was much farther from the point of impact, she was engulfed in a fireball that descended down the building in an elevator shaft and suffered burns on more than 85 percent of her body.

“Harry beat the odds and so did Lauren,” Novich says. “It was a very remarkable thing that we as caregivers went through to have them here and to see them survive. It was one of the more memorable things in my career. It was very profound from my point of view. We had two patients from 9/11 who were burned who had families, and two who were single, and I saw a very big difference in the recovery.”

During their recovery, Manning and Waizer, along with their families, celebrated New Year’s Eve together with a Chinese dinner in Burke’s cafeteria.

“It was a little bittersweet,” he says. “It was making the best of a difficult situation.”

Each day presented an option of either approaching the day with joy or misery, Waizer says.

Sometimes he would have to find the humor or hope in the little things, like asking his rabbi to give him a shave or appreciating books as gifts even though he couldn’t turn the pages.

“How could you not laugh, how you could feel anything but good after a moment like that,” he says. “It is all those little efforts at caring, at helping, that wouldn’t allow me to stay in my despair.”

On Feb. 13, Waizer left the hospital for his home, but his rehabilitation would continue physically as an outpatient and mentally as a survivor of 9/11.

“Leave-taking was emotional,” he says. “There is no way to adequately thank the people who have helped you. Whatever you say is just inadequate, but that is what you have to do.”

The experience was emotional not only for the immense gratitude he felt for the staff, but also for the challenges that remained for him and his family as he continued his recovery.

“I felt I would be coming home a diminished man.” He says. “I couldn’t open a jar. I couldn’t feed myself.”

Eager to regain the confidence that comes with productivity, Waizer pushed through his recovery and partially resumed working at Cantor Fitzgerald in 2004 where he continues to work today.

Cantor lost more than two-thirds of its workforce (more than 650 people) during the terrorist attacks, and reminders of those close friends and colleagues still haunt Waizer at times, he says.

Some of his physical injuries will never fully heal, but he tries to remain grateful for what remains in his life, not what’s been lost.

“I am a child of Holocaust survivors, which I think gave me a very different perspective on 9/11. As terrible as 9/11 was, I came from a family that had experienced a horror that dwarfed it. So I brought that perspective to it. I was never bitter,” he says.  “For those of you who are, or may someday become patients at a Burke or other place, I just want to share the knowledge that there is life after and it can be a very good life despite whatever challenges may remain.”

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