ConEd worker battles to bring awareness to plight of 9/11 first responders

By Cheryl Makin

In the very early morning of September 11, 2001, Con Edison employee Nicholas Poliseno finished the night shift stationed outside of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. He headed home and went to sleep in the early daylight hours.

More than 12 years later, what happened later that morning and Poliseno’s subsequent involvement in the terror attacks’ aftermath shadows every breath and step he takes.

On September 11, 2001, 2,977 [sic] perished in the attacks.

On September 19, 2011, the World Trade Center Response Fatality Investigative Program released a report that said 836 deaths of responders — from September 12, 2001, to June 30, 2009 — met its criteria to be connected to September 11. Now, four years later, more than 700 additional responders have died. Most of these 1,500 deaths are because of “toxic exposure,” Poliseno said, adding that thousands of others are sick and/or dying.

Poliseno, a 9/11 first responder, noted that exact numbers will never be known, as responders came from around the country and around the world. Many are not part of the WTC Health Registry reports or statistics, he said.

As proud as he is of his service, Poliseno fights every day not to become one of these fatal statistics. Since a month after the fall of the towers, Poliseno has been suffering from the effects of his exposure to the site. What began with a cough and difficulty breathing became asthma, chronic bronchitis and gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. Sleep apnea, severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and eventually a diagnosis of a more serious disease, sarcoidosis, ensued as medical visits compiled and experts weighed in.

“I got seriously ill due to my exposure of working on the pile and diagnosed with stage III multiorgan sarcoidosis,” said Poliseno, who is the mayor of Spotswood. “My sarcoid spread to multiple organs in 2012, with the most noticeable being my bones, which some days makes things a little harder for me now. Sometimes you might see me with a limp or walking with a cane, and that just means I’m having a harder day then usual.”

Sarcoidosis is an autoimmune syndrome that can systematically affect any organ. For Poliseno, it began in his lungs and has spread to other areas, including his bones, legs and nervous system. He likens it to cancer.

“It goes from organ to organ,” Poliseno said. “It is a syndrome involving abnormal collections of chronic inflammatory cells known as granulomas that form nodules in multiple organs.”

He has kept his story largely to himself but has begun to share it publicly in an effort to help others who might not be aware of the resources available to them. His latest efforts include filming a television commercial that recently began airing nationwide and an upcoming blood drive.

September 11, 2001

“My boss had asked us if we wanted to stay later that day,” said Poliseno, who was 23 at the time of the 9/11 attacks. “I was tired. I was going home. It was an omen. Being the kind of person that I am, had I been there, I would have gone inside to try to help. It’s good I went home. By 11 a.m., they called all of us back.”

At first, Poliseno didn’t even know the attacks had occurred. He was home and was asleep before it happened. After many attempts calling from her job, Allison Poliseno, his wife, finally reached him and gave him the news.

“I couldn’t believe that it happened, and I couldn’t believe that the towers fell,” Poliseno said. “Who would ever think that 110 stories would collapse?”

As a ConEd employee, Poliseno knew that the power to all of lower New York City was housed in Building 7. That’s why the city lost power when Building 7 collapsed, he said. Like many others, Poliseno was now in the role of first responder and made his way back to the city. It took 2 1/2 hours.

“Once I got to the Turnpike by Exit 13, I could see all the smoke in the air as I looked toward New York City,” he said. “All the exits were closed off. I was lucky I had my company card. The ID card gave us access to the city.”

By 7:30 p.m., Poliseno made his way to the site that he left that morning. He found dust and ash up to his knees. There are haunting images that will never leave his head, he said. Though known for his gregarious and “can-do” personality, Poliseno said that every year on the 9/11 anniversary, he has a “dark day” and cannot face being in the city.

As a ConEd employee, Poliseno worked at ground zero for a year. Wearing a dustmask for the first couple of nights, then a respirator, Poliseno said eventually the responders were told “the air was safe” and to “take off the masks.” It is now known that the original tests were flawed, Poliseno said.

“The first couple nights we were there, there was nothing for us to do in the sense of getting power back to the city. No one had ever considered that one of the major stations would collapse,” he said. “We helped the police departments with bucket brigades.

“After that, we worked at ground zero relocating all the power cables. We were covered in the dust. We had air hoses that blew all the dust off you, but you were breathing in the dust in the process. We didn’t even realize what was in the air.”

A few years later

Poliseno said his symptoms started to escalate in 2004. Doctor visits were more prevalent and, in 2005, he transitioned to Dr. Michael Iannuzzi, chief of pulmonology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Side effects from medications, treatments and tests also have taken their toll over the years.

“When I was on the steroid prednisone, I couldn’t sleep. I had weight gain. I was grouchy. My hands shook. It was horrible,” he said. “I started to get worse and worse. I have had to take so much sick time. In 2005, I was out of work for eight months. In 2006, I was on six different pill prescriptions and several types of inhalers. In 2007, I had months of heavy doses of steroids to try to clear everything in my lungs. In 2009, I was on four inhalers and 10 different prescription pills.”

Sarcoidosis is not a common illness, Poliseno said. It typically is diagnosed in black men older than 50. Poliseno is white and 35. More first responders have been diagnosed with sarcoidosis because of the testing Poliseno went through, his wife said.

“I was a lab rat,” he said.

Poliseno is not alone among ConEd employees or even his family members. An uncle who worked at a 9/11-affected site in Staten Island now has a rare blood cancer. According to Poliseno, many people in his department have developed asthmalike symptoms, respiratory illnesses and coughs.

“Everyone who was involved is getting sick with a whole range of ailments. There are four people in my yard that are really sick like I am,” he said. “We ate there together. We had the same shifts. From the time of the collapse, we worked 24 nights straight without a day off.”

“He would come home, shower, sleep, get up and go back in,” Allison Poliseno added.

Fortunately, Poliseno was connected to the World Trade Center Health and Medical Monitoring Program in 2010. The program covers most of Poliseno’s medications, weekly chemotherapy treatments and IVIG infusions that have him hospitalized at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick every 21 days.

Throughout this ordeal, the Polisenos have worked together and supported each other. They have even embraced the humorous moments and relished in living life to the fullest.

“I remember one time I had a bronchial scope. But, this time they wanted me to stay awake during the test,” Poliseno said. “It was extremely painful. More painful than anything I have ever had in my life. And as they are wheeling me away, Allison says, ‘See you on the other side.’ I was thinking, ‘What? What do you mean?'”

“I didn’t mean that other side,” she said. “We laugh about it now. He wasn’t laughing then.”

Allison Poliseno etched a saying on the living room wall, so all members of the family — including daughters Victoria, 9, and Olivia, 7 — can see it daily: “Dream as if you will live forever. Live as if you only have today.”

“I see that every day as I come down the steps,” Poliseno said. “I try to do this every day.”

Telling others

For years, Poliseno hid his illness. It took a year after his diagnosis of sarcoidosis before he told his family. And that was only because he was put on the list for a double lung transplant.

“People don’t think I’m sick. I’ve gotten very good at hiding it. I used to coach my kids’ sports,” he said. “I can’t do it anymore. People just thought I got too busy, but it was because I really couldn’t do it anymore.

“We really didn’t tell anyone except a few close friends and family. It took a year before we told my family. My work knows, of course, and now I am able to work from home two days a week. I only travel to Manhattan Monday through Wednesday now. Now, I can’t even go to doctor visits alone. Allison has to accompany me. It has now become life-threatening. But, I will do whatever I can to stop it.”

“He’s also stubborn,” Allison Poliseno said. “He did things in pain because he is stubborn.”

“I am stubborn,” Poliseno said with a laugh. “I am.”

Poliseno knows his future amounts to a change in quality of life. The family has become involved with Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit family service organization that has made a long-term commitment to every individual who was directly impacted by the events of 9/11. Last year, the Polisenos attended a Sarcoidosis Expo and the majority of those afflicted were in wheelchairs and on oxygen support.

Besides chemotherapy treatments weekly and IVIG infusion treatments — which Olivia calls her “daddy’s oil change” — every three weeks, Poliseno is on six types of inhalers, 16 pill prescriptions and one liquid prescription.

“That’s 23 medications a day, plus the chemo and plasma,” he said. “I am an active person. I can’t imagine this being my future. I can’t get it out of my head. It’s a hard pill to swallow — that it will never go away.

“But, I am living every day to its fullest. I take nothing for granted. I work had to stay positive and there are times I am down. I am a 35-year-old man with the lungs of an 80-year-old. It’s tough. But I will fight — for my daughters. They are my blessing.”

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