top of page
  • Natasha J. Thomas, MD

9/11, Med School and Me

I began medical school in the summer of 2001 and was beyond excited. You can see it on my face at my pinning ceremony in this picture. Med school, for most science-oriented students, is a long-awaited dream, constructed by years of diligent study. It represented the passing of test after test after test - and being ready for the ultimate challenge. My best friend and I decided we'd apply to the University of Miami, both with the intention of getting back to Florida and being close to family. We were beside ourselves when we received our school acceptances, moved down to Miami, and rented our first apartment.

Right after school started, our 22-year-old-type tragedy struck. One of our favorite singers, Aaliyah, was killed in a plane crash. I can still vividly remember sitting at our Big Lots breakfast table in tears as we heard the news. To us, Aaliyah represented everything beautiful and cool about being young in the early 2000s. My friend had the same type of long hair that everyone thought looked "just like Aaliyah," at times complete with the swoop covering one eye. Besides, Aaliyah was also in our graduating class from high school, and sang at our Senior Night at Disney World in 1997, making us feel all that much more connected to her.

Aaliyah Haughton

1/16/1979 - 8/25/2001

During our days at the University of Miami School of Medicine (before the name was changed to Miller), we primarily took basic science classes for the first two years. We had lectures from 8 in the morning all the way until about 4 in the afternoon. Just the thought of another long day of lectures was exhausting to me on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, which was the reason I decided I needed a little break from my first class after being there just under an hour. I headed to the student lounge.

Our large flat-screen TV was on in the lounge, set to the news, and at first I didn't pay any attention at all. I walked in, stooped down to the "T" section of the mailboxes and found random fliers in my box that I most certainly was going to stuff in my bag and forget. Mindlessly, I stood up, turned around and was frozen by the images on the TV. The first tower of the World Trade Center had been struck and a second plane was heading into the other tower at that very moment. "Oh my God!" I whispered, then said, "No!" as flames and bodies were bursting through the smoke-filled sky.

A few older medical students stood there stunned as well. I can't speak for them, but at that moment I was the most scared I had ever been in my entire life. Shock sat on my chest and suffocated me. I began to cry. I'm not quite sure how long I stood there, but eventually I found myself back in the hallway, headed to the auditorium to try to make sense of what was happening. A woman working at the snack bar, who had been standing there watching the news too, asked me if I was ok. "Um, no!" I responded, wondering how she could be.

When I returned to our class, news had spread that the nation was under attack and news coverage was being played in our room. Everyone was silent. Our dean stood at the podium, trying to reassure us. Of course, class would be canceled. People began to run about with the early iterations of cell phones, to find out if family members in New York, Washington DC and just anywhere in the country were ok. I remember being distinctly worried about all my friends from the graduating class of 2001 at Spelman that were New Yorkers.

And then I felt the dread of being a sitting duck. I called people, and of course could reach no one. Phone lines were flooded. But for the remainder of that day, and the days immediately following, I felt I was just sitting, waiting to be attacked. That night, I went home to my apartment. My friend wasn't home for awhile, and I'm not sure where my girlfriends next door had gone. I sat alone in the house, watching the news coverage and countless replays of footage of the World Trade Center towers collapsing. Suddenly, I heard explosions. My heart gripped in my chest, I looked outside over Miami's Biscayne Bay and felt is if I was going to pass out. I searched the sky, the ground, the water and saw nothing.

But then another explosion, and another. Panicked, I ran to the front door of my apartment and searched for signs of attack. Finding none, I sprinted to the front door of our courtyard and down to the parking lot, crying again. The parking lot was filled with people staring up at the sky. Fireworks. It was only fireworks. For me, witnessing 9/11 just through TV, having lost no one I knew to the violence that fell on America that day, I was so keyed up that fireworks brought me to tears.

We know, and remember, that our country lost 2,996 people on 9/11/2001. Every year, we read the roster of those names, newscasters visit Ground Zero, documentaries are shown, conspiracy theories are revived, and those of us old enough tell young ones about the days when you could go the airport terminal and wait for friends or see a loved one off on their journey.

Credit Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Studies have shown that 70% of American adults have experienced a traumatic event, and 9/11 is one reason why. This month, we've been talking about anxiety and all its different manifestations. Tomorrow, we'll get to Part Five of our Series. In my blog post from last week, I discussed the threat of violence as one of the main causes of the "American Brand of Fear". No, America is not even close to the most violent country on Earth. But being so confident in our stature and military prowess, 9/11 shook us to the very core.

Early in the morning on 9/11, my girlfriends and I would have ridden to school blasting Aaliyah's latest record and remembering our Hip-Hop and R&B princess as the "dopest" artist to walk the planet. We were kids when we went to school that day, but not so much when we left. Instead, our calling to medicine took on a new, more serious weight. We felt vulnerable, but knew that doctors would have been expected to help amongst the chaos and tragedy in each place affected by attacks that day. Would we be called on to be heroes someday soon?


Today, be sure to remember 9/11, the first-responders, victims, survivors and families who were directly impacted. Regardless of your politics, you have to know that Americans, America, and the world, were forever changed on that day. Also, remember all those who have lost their lives to unforeseen tragedies - young people, unexpected deaths, dreams cut short. Celebrate all things about life that you love and make this day a good one, full of beauty and wonder. It's the best way we can honor those who aren't here to see it on this side.

106 views0 comments
bottom of page