By Shannon McFarlin News Director
Cottage Grove, Tenn.—For the past several years, Helen Roberts-Niemi of Cottage Grove has been involved in the tragedy of 9/11 in a way few others have.
She has been working for the World Trade Center Health Care Program, building provider networks for first responders and survivors of the 9/11 terrorists’ attacks and it has put her at the center of one of America’s most horrendous tragedies. It’s an experience that has been sad, frustrating, and distressing, but at times also fulfilling on those occasions when the first responders and survivors can be helped.
The victims she works with live all over the United States, not just in the New York City area. “I have a couple of victims right here in Union City,” Roberts-Niemi said. “When the attacks hit, there were people in the area of the World Trade Center who were just living their lives. Some were there on vacation. There were daycare centers right in the World Trade Center. There were people who just happened to be walking down the street at the wrong time.”
The responsibilities of those in her field have grown dramatically in recent years, she said. “From 2001 to 2011 we saw illnesses develop in the first responders, but in 2011, we started seeing the odd cancers develop—men with breast cancer and young women with ovarian cancers, that sort of thing.”
In 2012, cancer became a certifiable condition for which first responders and survivors could be treated, she said. There were six clinical centers of excellence and victims could pick which one they wanted to go to.
But since 2012, those six centers could no longer handle all the patient care as the cases grew. “When cancer came on board, they needed to start contracting with companies like mine to build a provider network and that’s what I do,” Roberts-Niemi said.
It involves a lot of travel and telephone time and it is often exasperating when health care providers and other advocates have to work to ensure the first responders and survivors are treated, she said, noting that even extending the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund became a political football. The extension was finally passed but not without a lot of debate and political wrangling even though it provides financial assistance to first responders who developed illnesses after responding to the 2001 attacks.
For Roberts-Niemi and others in her field, it is more than just a job. “It’s my job, but more importantly, it’s my passion,” she said.
Photo: Helen Roberts-Niemi at the plaque located at FDNY 9 Metrotech, Brooklyn.