“Tom, you’re alive!!! “ The words fell out of my mouth as if they had been too many gigantic jelly beans.
Before me stood Tom Cahill. Young, healthy looking, sporting his neat white shirt, understated blue tie, and beige tweed sport coat. Always dressed impeccably, ready for his client meetings. Tom Cahill, R.N., the father of three, one still a very young baby. Tom Cahill, the nurse who did us all proud by carving his way into the corporate world, hired by a major company as a “consultant”. The very sound of that word, at that time in my life, rang bells in my head and before me I saw fireworks in the sky. A man, a registered nurse, a consultant. A friend indeed, in an enviable position. That angelic, clean scrubbed face and lovely warm personality were parts of what made Tom a welcomed team mate. Tom, very much alive.
Our professional relationship began when Tom and his work associate, Maria, became part of the team that was sent by their consulting firm as my company was in the process of selecting a Disability Management firm, one that would revolutionize the way that the Colgate Palmolive Company handled non-work-related illness and injury. Together, we would formulate a plan of action and interview several companies, based on criteria selected by our consultants. We met often as a work group.
Mine was a somewhat lonely, beautifully decorated office. My building, headquarters for one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, was located in the heart of midtown Manhattan, on Park Avenue, directly across the street from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. One could not ask for a better location or a better view from the company cafeteria. My office was actually a suite of rooms, each dedicated to some aspect of corporate health and wellness. If the rooms were all fused together, truth be known, I had a bigger space than did the Chairman of the company but he had more windows and he had many more co-workers. I had a huge budget, all of the most up to date medical equipment, a lovely new ergonomic work station and a gracious waiting room for my clients. Behind my work station was a room that was designed to my specifications. It was called the “Personal Program Room”, a mini spa, complete with massage chair, room darkening blinds, and tinkly music. One could use the room for praying, dancing, exercising or simply taking time out to “chill” during an otherwise stressful work day. Two clinical rooms down the hall, another beautifully equipped room with a work station for the visiting physician and two “resting” rooms down a short corridor….but only one, solitary nurse.
The dubious distinction of being “THE” company nurse came with a few drawbacks. It was I who answered all of the emergency calls, and with no less than one thousand people in the building at any one time, there were quite a few each month. It was I who had the job description that carried the implied duty of “never losing my cool” and always being ready to soothe the crowds should there be a major catastrophe, real or perceived. All by myself….
So, the presence of another health professional in my workplace, if only for the duration of a meeting once a week or month, was a source of great pleasure. Tom filled the bill more than adequately.
“Come on in Tom, sit down. I’m so, so very happy to see you. I was so worried about you”
“Thank you. Believe me; I’m also very happy to see everyone”
“ Do you feel like talking about it Tom. If you don’t its okay”
“No, they told us it was good for us to talk about it. We still have regular group meetings”
Tom asked me for a piece of paper and a pencil and sat down on the visitor chair beside my free-formed desk. I closed the door and put up the “Treatment in progress. Please do not disturb unless it is an emergency” sign.
Slowly and purposefully, Tom started to draw a square on the paper. Along the sides of the square, he drew smaller squares.
“So, here’s my story” he began.
“I was at my office, preparing a presentation for the next day, working later into the night. I was starting to get tired and knew that I had to meet up with the rest of my team in the lobby of the building the next morning, so I called car service, boxed up all of my hand out materials, and scheduled an email to arrive early the next morning at my office in New Jersey”
“Oh, that’s right, now I remember, you live closer to the New Jersey office than the New York office, don’t you?
“Correct, I only live a few miles from the office, so close that I did not even turn my car radio on as I drove in”
“Oh, Tom, I have a feeling I know what’s coming next…..”
“When I arrived at the office, ready to print out my materials and head to meet my team members, I was greeted by office assistants who looked at me and screamed, started crying out, telling me that they were receiving an email that stopped abruptly during its transmission”
Tom sighed, took a deep breath, and quietly went on
“I had not yet heard the news but they had. Already in a state of panic, my incoming email, from my office on the one hundred and first floor of the North tower of the World Trade Center caused several of my Marsh McClellan coworkers to fall down into a fetal position”
Taking pencil in hand, Tom started to inscribe a series of little X’s, filling in boxes in what I soon understood was a diagram of the building’s northeast corner.
“This is where Mary sat, and this is where John sat and this is where Phil sat, and this is where Cathy sat, right there where the nose of the plane entered the building. And this, this is where I sat, right next to Ed’s office. I would have been sitting there had I not packed it in at 11pm on the evening of September 10th.”
Three hundred and thirty two of Tom’s co-workers, including their solitary “company nurse” perished that day. I often wonder how well she kept her cool.