Sept. 11, 2001, started off as just another day for Dr. Harry Marshak.
“I was working then at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary in Manhattan, which is maybe two miles away from Ground Zero,” recalled Marshak, who now practices ophthalmic plastic and facial surgery in Palm Desert. “We were in the middle of surgery when a nurse came in and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Everybody thought, ‘Well, it’s just a small plane that must have gone into the building.’ But people kept coming in with reports, so (when) we were done with surgery, we went up to the roof.
“The tower that we could have seen had already fallen. Everyone was in shock. So the question was what to do next. The hospital had an emergency protocol which we went through—but we had only one, not-too-severely injured fireman brought in. And then it was quiet.”
Marshak had been living in New York City for 11 years at the time of the tragedy.
“We were watching TV at the time, and there was a call out that they needed doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was the closest hospital to Ground Zero,” he said. “So, with some other doctors, I went over. When we got there, they had discharged everybody from the emergency room. There were no patients. There were empty beds lined up in there. They had gurneys outside covered in sheets. They were expecting hundreds of patients, but there was nobody there.”
Marshak shook his head gently as he spoke. “Now, the inclination is to find where the need is. So next, I ended up at Chelsea Piers. The city took over these piers on the westside in the ’20s, and they had this emergency plan set up that went into action. There were maybe 50 folding tables set up as operating tables with some cushions, and they had surgical equipment. They were organizing teams of four doctors for each table: a surgeon, an anesthesiologist and two other medical professionals. We got assigned to these teams—and then we were waiting, and there wasn’t anybody there.
“But there was another room where people with minor injuries were just walking in or brought by ambulance,” Marshak continued. “I found all these people who had eye problems, because a lot of debris was getting in people’s eyes—fiberglass and chemicals were in the air—so I got involved in flushing out people’s eyes, and pulling things out of their eyes. I was the only doctor there with eye training, so I taught others how to flush out an eye. Some of the firemen had contact lenses and needed to get them cleaned out and put back in without losing them, so they could go back out and do their job. I mean, they were minor ailments, but if you didn’t know what you were doing, then you could do more harm than good.”
Marshak took a deep breath. “So I stayed there until pretty early in the morning (of Wednesday the 12th). Then I went home for a few hours, got up and went back. I took a bunch of supplies from that Chelsea facility, put them in my car and drove down to Ground Zero.
“It was kind of just chaos down there. I remember walking through thick muck on the ground. You would put your foot down, and it would just stick. It was debris and water from the fire hoses. And the air—I was carrying a heavy box of irrigating fluid, and I was having trouble catching my breath because of the smoke and the difficulty walking. Finally, I found other doctors, and there were people to treat, but, again, it was minor injuries. Most of the people we were treating were rescue workers.”
After a moment’s pause, Dr. Marshak added: “After two days, what became clear was that when the planes hit, either you got out of the towers, or you didn’t. We hadn’t seen injuries directly related to the tower strikes. Almost none.”
As the week unfolded, both the determination of New York’s citizens and the impact of the terrorist attack on U.S. soil were revealed.
“Now the rescue workers weren’t just professionals—they were all these people trying to go through rubble and getting hurt,” Marshak said. “Just anybody in New York was coming down. People weren’t looting. They were trying to help, but people were getting hurt.
“We ended up in the American Express building, which was right next to the WTC complex. There were makeshift triage centers. Hospitals were sending in supplies. And then they started giving us masks, so we started handing out masks to everyone. As time went on, we’d get better masks, and then (even) better masks. We began to wonder: What have we been breathing in? But that’s the way it goes.”
Marshak said the scale of the violence perpetrated on Sept. 11 became more evident as the days passed. “A morgue was set up in the atrium of the American Express building. I recall the remains of maybe 20 or 30 people, and there were priests giving last rites.” Marshak said. “When you were walking around down there, you can’t imagine the size of the rubble. ‘The Pile,’ they called it. I mean, the enormity of the destruction was beyond words—to see a building on its side across the West Side Highway. Tower 7 was tilted over and still smoldering. There were people climbing up the side of the building to see if anyone was inside. I mean, these were just civilians, you know. There was just so much destruction.”
Raised in the Los Angeles area, Marshak has now been a resident of the Coachella Valley for nine years.
“Before that day, I was complacent. I liked the ophthalmology and eye surgery that I was doing, but I wasn’t passionate about it,” the doctor said. “So I decided to do ocular or ophthalmic plastic surgery, which is reconstructive for the eyelid and the eye socket—basically, the upper two-thirds of the face. Also, how I approach medicine became more hard-core.”
He would soon leave New York for a fellowship at the University of Southern California, starting in July 2003.
“During my fellowship at USC, I was on call 24-7 for two years, and I operated almost every night in the middle of the night,” he said. “That’s what I wanted. I needed to immerse myself.”
And today? “People say that I’m a workaholic now. But I just like what I do, and I’m passionate about what I do now,” he said.
Why did he choose to set up his practice in Palm Desert? “I first came out here to do some training, and I saw the need for ocular plastic surgery out here. There are enough surgeons in L.A.”
For more information on Dr. Harry Marshak, visit www.drmarshak.com.