We met on a sidewalk in September, 1968, just outside a movie theater on Green Street in Champaign Illinois. From that second forward we were dear close friends. Mike embodies the best of a Midwesterner's sensibility and approach to life. He’s open, gregarious, shirt-off-his-back generous, down-to–earth authentic, quick witted and funny as hell. And, he’s smart. In fact he is the smartest man I’ve ever known… well-versed in a wide variety of subjects…a talented scholar with a brilliant mind and an exceptional medical diagnostician. He’s a pretty fine tenor, a great conversationalist and a fiercely loyal friend. Time and distance never seemed to impact the quality of our friendship or the fluidity of our conversations. That’s the way it was - the way it’s always been.
Mike, born an Irish Catholic, was raised in Chicago but quickly became a New Yorker after graduating from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. He left to pursue an Internship and Internal Medicine Residency at The Animal Medical Center in New York City. Eventually, he became Chairman of the its Department of Medicine, Director of the E. & M. Bobst Hospital, and Chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine and Critical Care. Mike’s a big guy, inside and out. He's a “City of the Big Shoulders” kind of big guy...with the kind of shoulders needed in New York during the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in 2001.
Around 7:45 that morning, I headed into the faculty lounge to retrieve my mail and then just stopped in my tracks. Several teachers were crowded around a small television watching footage from the first plane’s impact on the north tower. We were stunned, horrified…silent. The day dragged endlessly on at school with minimal news availability aside from that obtainable between classes, during lunch or a preparation period. It was a Catholic high school in northern Illinois. The kids understandably wanted and needed to talk about what was happening and to pray...and so we did. All the while, I wondered and worried about Mike. The Animal Medical Center is on East 62nd street near the Queensboro Bridge. Where was he?
Throughout that afternoon and evening calling proved to be impossible, so I emailed with no success. I kept thinking, "He’s there…in the heart of it…I know it. " My mother called… and my brother… and my friend Sarah. They all wanted to know. Had I heard from Mike? Was he okay? I watched the television throughout the night numb and desensitized... praying and waiting. A brief troubled sleep came somewhere short of dawn.
He wrote late the next day. What follows are parts of emails we exchanged for the next few weeks.“I am fine. I spent the day down at the disaster tending to the search and rescue dogs. I can't believe I was just telling you how safe New York is. This is unreal.”
At some point we spoke on the phone. Mike was exhausted, continuing to work at a MASH unit with the search and rescue dogs. The animals needed IV fluids, antibiotics, treatment for cuts, burns, and various injuries incurred as they worked long impossible shifts at Ground Zero.
Fema News Photo, Andrea Booher, 2001.
“Dear Mike,Here in the Heartland the strength, the love and the greatness of this country are everywhere visible. Each street, small or large has become a sea of red, white and blue. Everyone wants to do something...donations, fund-drives, everywhere. It seems that so much horror so much unspeakable evil and tragedy has brought forth so much love...so much caring...and yes, so much fierce determination to help and to endure. The beauty and strength of the American spirit...the "ordinary" American people is overwhelming. Prayers never stop...nor do tears. These are unbelievably frightening, humbling and magnificent moments in which to live in this country...and amid them all...I continue to cherish you as the incredible gift you have always been in my life...All my love and prayers...Be safe...xo B”
On September 28th, Mike forwarded me an amazing article from the London Mirror. I include excerpts here:
“THE DOGS OF WAR From Anton Antonowicz In New York”
“…THIS is the story of a band of heroes who cannot tell the tale themselves. They are the 300 sniffer dogs working at the very centre of the disaster. One has died, crushed beneath falling debris on the day the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Another has perished falling into a burning pit. At one stage they called the dogs off, believing it was too dangerous to continue. But their work has been too vital, too important. Within hours, they were back…
..That these animals have managed 12-hour shifts in a maelstrom of hot metal and choking dust is a tribute to their handlers and a remarkable team of veterinarians which has set up its own field hospital on the edge of the site. The M.A.S.H unit is a mobile hospital parked on West Side Highway, six blocks from where the WTC stood. The truck was originally a travelling clinic for neutering cats - the Mobile Animal Spay Hospital - and M.A.S.H. was a joke none of them could resist. Now the joke is lost. M.A.S.H. has become a crucial element in what is a war zone.
Fema News Photo, Andrea Booher, 2001.
...Dr Michael _ has been here since day one. An expert in emergency veterinary surgery, he is a huge man, sweating beneath the heat and the strain of keeping these animals doing their work - and alive. "One fell face first into a dust hole," he says. "His mouth was filled with the muck down there. His ears, his eyes. He was basically buried alive. When they got him out he was suffocated. Thankfully I was able to resuscitate him and he's already back there. Another just collapsed, convulsing from over-exertion but again we were able to save him. The dogs' stamina is unbelievable. I have been a vet for 27 years and I have learned a lot this week."
As he speaks, a burly man in combat trousers leads his German shepherd, a Stars-and-Stripes bandana around its neck, into the M.A.S.H. unit. Danno Cusson was a police officer in Ottawa, Canada. He quit the job yesterday in order to carry on working here. He believes he'll be in New York for some time. Danno arrived within eight hours of the tragedy with 18-month-old Ranger. They have been living and sleeping on the site. Both are exhausted.
In the middle of that first night, sometime early on Wednesday when torrential rain hammered the rescue operation, Danno and Ranger found two of the countless trapped office workers. None has been found since. "We had lights but all you could see was grey rubble. My dog started pulling at the leash and then I saw them. They didn't look human. Just two piles of moving grey debris. I called the firemen and they pulled them out. They were both male and in pretty bad shape. I don't know if they made it. "We've made about another 20 hits, but they were all fatalities. The rest - maybe 60 or 70, I've lost count - were just parts. Bits. Terrible. Ranger would normally be looking for signs of life, now there are only signs of death."
Dr Mike checks the animal, running gloved hands over its body, checking for wounds. Many of the dogs have bandaged and taped paws or bootees to protect them from the sharp debris. He turns Ranger round to inject him with antibiotics. The dog yelps in pain, sending a small spurt of blood over Danno's right hand. The two men soothe Ranger. Another needle, another yelp, but this time the injection is delivered along with rehydrating fluid. The vet takes swabs, cleans Ranger's eyes and ears. The dogs wipe their eyes with their paws. The hair, of course, is matted with dust. Each cotton-wool stick is thick with filth, a gunk of shattered glass, asbestos and human tissue.
Fema News Photo, Michael Reiger, 2001.
...The animals are given antibiotics daily. The risk of disease is huge, both to people and dogs. Within days Manhattan could face viral outbreaks. It is a threat which sanitary and health officials have been fighting all week. Everyone here wears masks. Another vet, Martha O. tells me I must find a smog mask, and she suggests I have my suit dry-cleaned as soon as I can. "New York's air is never the cleanest," she says, "but no one knows what it contains now."
As if on cue, Danno leads his dog to a shower they have installed. He sprays the hose all over Ranger, the ground turning dark with blackened water. The bandana is dripping. "He's an honorary American now," jokes Danno. Then, after a weary handshake, he sets off back to The Pit, back to the Devil's own mouth.
Most of the dogs here are either Alsatians or Labradors. Bloodhounds are not used because they are trained to follow a specific person's route. The number of "specific persons" lost here is too vast to contemplate their use. A large number, as Dr. Mike explains, are "freelance" dogs from all over the US and Canada. There are also some supplied by the French government. They fall into two categories: rescue dogs looking for sweat, scent and breath, and cadaver dogs trained to find decomposing tissue. The Labradors have better scent; German shepherds are easier to train....
"It's so difficult down there," says Michael. "These animals are walking along those twisted beams. It's easy to slip. And it is a miracle we have had so few casualties." ...
Fema News Photo, Michael Reiger, 2001.
While dehydration is obviously a problem for animals working eight to 12 hours without water, another is that, put simply, they become confused. "They are out there searching scent in a pretty structured way, each pack given specific areas, but they are picking up all manner of bacteria, which means a host of scents, and it's very important to get those scents off the dog's body," says Michael, "otherwise you'll find dog trailing dog thinking it's on the way to a human being." ...
"It's probably not a day for talking about dogs when there's that out there," says another handler gesturing towards a seemingly endless plume of smoke billowing up and bending out to sea across the Hudson River like some sick silhouette of the Statue of Liberty. We all understand what he means. But these are days which are tireless dog days too. And we should be thankful for their role. ”
(Bold print above excerpted from the article: “THE DOGS OF WAR" by Anton Antonowicz, London Mirror in NY September, 2001)
I'm so proud of my friend, Mike, and the role he played for over two weeks as a volunteer veterinarian at the M.A.S.H. unit near ground zero. I'm grateful for everyone, individual or group who shouldered into that work. Every September 11th finds me calling and emailing my friend simply to reach out...to say that I love him, that I remember where he was and what he did...that I recognize that while he witnessed horror, he made a difference. Unspeakable sadness, anger and an aching hollowness remain part of the remembrance. Thinking of Mike working there, imagining the things he saw, felt, breathed and experienced still carves into me. Photos of the towers, the firemen and the angellic "Dogs of War" still make me cry.