Introducing Three New Heroes

I'm assuming ran a little "expose". - Jon

9/11 heroes: Gary White



STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Gary White's idea of good fortune is not even close to what it was before Sept. 11, 2001, when he rushed to Ground Zero, returning nearly every day for six months.

"Today is a good day, because I found out I don't have skin cancer," he told an Advance reporter one morning last month.

For a 52-year-old weight-lifter who once commanded the NYPD detective squad in Chinatown and has an obsession with Superman, the news was a ray of light in a life darkened by extreme physical and financial vulnerability.

These days, White is living with permanent brain damage and walks with a cane. Notes are scattered around his Bay Terrace studio apartment so he'll remember his daily rituals of medications, doctors' visits, and what little else he can accomplish outside of meeting his own health needs, like helping his 18-year-old daughter plan for college.

He can concentrate only in short spurts, and a conversation is riddled with frequent pauses as he struggles to regain his train of thought. Even talking to his 15-year-old son about how his day was makes his head pound. White calls it "Rainman head."

"This is not me," said White during an interview in his apartment, which he is leaving this month because he can't afford the rent. "This is not my world. Now I know what every Vietnam veteran feels like, because I'm a veteran, too. I'm a veteran of 9/11."

White's demise began with a rash. Next came the constant cough, and then, with a vengeance, the post-nasal drip. By 2004, the drip was preventing him from sleeping, and White became exhausted.

Rather than treat the breathing problem, his private doctors prescribed him sleep medication, which only made it worse. Exhaustion mixed with depression led to anxiety attacks.

In 2005 White hit his 23rd year with the NYPD and retired. He couldn't prove his health problems were related to 9/11, and therefore couldn't get a line-of-duty disability pension, which carries income and benefits far greater than the regular pension he now gets.

Last March, a visit to the Staten Island University Hospital sleep clinic revealed White stopped breathing between 35 and 40 times each hour. "Sometimes I wake up and I'm gasping for air," he said. "I freaked my son out once that way."

An ear, nose and throat doctor warned him that if he didn't surgically clear his airways, he would soon have a heart attack or stroke.

The stroke hit in September, while White was in the shower, leaving him permanently brain damaged. Maintaining the job he had as a security consultant -- which was financing his medical bills -- was out of the question.

Now he's in the process of trying to collect Social Security while fighting to have his disability pension changed to line-of-duty. He has letters from his neurologist, general physician and pulmonologist saying his health problems are related to the 9/11 work he did.

Meanwhile, White is scheduled for surgery in April to open his nasal passages. He hopes his health insurance will pay for most of it, but he said he doesn't know how he will cover the balance.

9/11 heroes: Edward Wallace



STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- To step foot in Edward Wallace's basement is to understand something fundamental about the retired detective: He would do most anything for his city.

Wood paneling is wallpapered with plaques, merit citations, awards, promotion certificates and diplomas, all earned during his 20 years with the New York Police Department.

Hanging in the center of the accolades is a homemade, postcard-perfect photograph of the city's nighttime skyline, the World Trade Center peeking out from behind the Empire State Building radiating red, white and blue.

But since Sept. 11, 2001, Wallace's devotion has all but washed away under the corrosive one-two punch of physical pain and medical bills. Now the 43-year-old Eltingville resident, who rushed to aid in the recovery at Ground Zero just after his brother, who died of brain cancer, was buried on Sept. 15, says his mayor and the NYPD have walked away from him.

Wallace spent five months shuttling between Ground Zero, Fresh Kills and the morgue as a member of the Crime Scene Unit. Now, he can no longer open jars because his joints constantly ache. Patches of burning red bumps flare up across his body, tumors swell beneath his skin and acid swims in his mouth.

And of course, there's the cough. The ever-present dry hack was his first symptom, kicking in a year after the attacks. Major surgery soon followed, so doctors at Staten Island University Hospital could cut out three sections of his lung.

The biopsies revealed he had sarcoidosis, a disease in which clusters of cells swell and attack organs like the eyes, liver, kidney, skin and, most commonly, the lungs, according to the American Lung Association. One benign tumor on Wallace's hip had grown to the size of a tennis ball when the doctor excised it.

"You look at my medicine chest and see all these medicines there, and you would think I was a senior citizen," said Wallace in his basement one recent night, as his wife Margaret, also a retired first-grade detective, sat nearby with their two sons, Ian, 15, and Brandon, 10.

The medications and doctors visits cost Wallace hundreds of dollars a month in co-pays, which he manages to finance through working as a forensic consultant and teaching classes in counter-terrorism tactics.

Still, anxiety runs high that any day his insurance provider will cut him off, realizing it is wrongly paying to treat illnesses contracted on the job, and therefore the legal responsibility of the police pension system.

When Wallace retired on his 20th year on the job in 2004, the police department rejected his claim that sarcoidosis was a line-of-duty injury. But in addition to sarcoidosis, Wallace has been diagnosed with dermatitis and eosinophilic esophagitis, a disease marked by inflamed white blood cells that attack the esophagus and eat away its lining.

All three of Wallace's diseases appear on the Pataki presumptive bill list.

9/11 heroes: Robert Wallen



STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Sept. 11, 2001, transformed Lt. Robert Wallen from a healthy New York firefighter to bone marrow recipient DRB11101.

Lt. Wallen, formerly a firefighter with Engine 151 in Tottenville, was working his side job at a South Shore polling station for the primary that day when he heard the frantic calls for help over a police radio.

Within two hours, he was at Ground Zero digging through rubble. He worked until midnight the first day, and returned every day for the next week.

During his labor, he wore only a paper mask to shield him from the heavy cloud of toxic dust and debris.

"One fireman, the end of that Tuesday, he says, 'We're all walking dead men.' I said, 'You really think so?' And we never spoke of it again. He understood what was in those buildings," Lt. Wallen recalled.

A few months later, Lt. Wallen went for a checkup with the FDNY's World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program. One platelet count was slightly off. He was told not to worry.

A year later, he began to feel an overwhelming fatigue. By September of 2003, a bone marrow aspirate helped doctors diagnose him with myelodysplastic syndrome, sometimes classified as an early form of cancer characterized by an ineffective production of blood cells.

In a letter from the Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center, a doctor linked his ailment to his work at Ground Zero, specifically his exposure to benzene.

Without a bone marrow transplant, Lt. Wallen was told he would die within three years.

"It was awful, absolutely awful. I remember the car ride home. He told me he was going to die in three years. I said to him, 'We have a 3-year-old,'" recalled his wife, Terry Wallen. The couple has three young children -- one of whom has Down syndrome.

In August of 2005, doctors found a match to save Lt. Wallen's life. The Wallens only know him as a 24-year-old man from Europe.

Today, the 42-year-old lieutenant is clear of the disease, but has retired from the FDNY because of his severe fatigue. He takes 26 pills a day.

He estimated he has spent $50,000 of his own money for treatments and drugs, though he was registered with the FDNY's World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program. He borrowed cash from his 92-year-old grandmother.

At one point, a bill collector showed up at his front door to demand money for a hospital stay that his insurance did not cover.

Lt. Wallen describes himself as a 42-year-old man living the life of a senior citizen.

"That's my main problem -- fatigue. I can't do what I used to do and really, it's tough. It's tough getting up in the morning and going through the day," he said.

He wistfully spoke about his grandfather, who chopped wood until he was in his 90s. "I looked at him and I said I wish I could be like him when I'm 90."