Chaplain blames 9/11 for lung problems

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — When the call came, the Rev. Tom Winslow did not hesitate.

Terrorists had destroyed the World Trade Center, and rescue workers needed the spiritual support of clergy.

So for one week in November of 2001, Winslow, an Episcopal priest and the chaplain for the Wisconsin FBI, ministered to rescue workers in an area of ground zero dubbed "the pit."

Winslow was one of many clergy attached to federal agencies who rotated through ground zero. He remembers praying over a rib cage, the only body part left of one victim.

Now, eight years later, Winslow thinks the toxic air he breathed that week led to a life-threatening health crisis. He received a lung transplant at UW Hospital three weeks ago and was back Monday for his first clinic visit.

"There are a lot of people out there who are still victims of 9/11, and they are going to be showing up in a wave at hospitals in the years ahead," said Winslow, 65, of Pewaukee.

At ground zero, he wore an air-purifying canister respirator at all times around his neck, he said. However, he breathed through it only when he traveled below ground, the common practice of those at the site, he said.

A 2009 report by the World Trade Center Medical Working Group says thousands of exposed people continue to suffer from chronic mental and physical health conditions but that a relationship between exposure and more serious illnesses such as cancer is unknown.

Winslow said he had no lung problems until after his work at ground zero, then suffered an asthma-like attack within a week or so. Serious sinus and bronchial problems developed, leading to pneumonia, gastric reflux disease, and, ultimately, lung failure.

Winslow said he has filed a workers' compensation claim against the government but anticipates taking no other legal action. The government's position, Winslow said, is that he can't prove his lung problems are not a result of a pack-a-day smoking habit he maintained for 26 years prior to quitting in 1986.

Dr. Keith Meyer, medical director of lung transplantation at UW Hospital, said that despite the proximity of Winslow's respiratory problems with his time at ground zero, "whether it had anything to do with it is nothing we could ever prove."

Winslow, a longtime proponent of organ donation, now wears a "Donate Life" pin on his collar. Even given what he's been through, he would answer the call again, he said, although, in hindsight, he would take more health precautions.

He professes not to be angry about what happened to him, just sad at times.

"I certainly haven't suffered as much as Christ did, and I was just doing what he asked me to do," he said.