Wednesday, February 21, 2007

9/11 responder to President: We need more


When Vito Valenti walked into Gleason Funeral Home in Bayside for the funeral of NYPD officer Ceasar Borja, oxygen tank in tow, most of the wet eyes turned to him.
Most of the people there knew about Valenti, he said. Knew that he, like Borja, worked at ground zero after the attacks of 9/11. They also knew that pulmonary fibrosis, which killed Borja, was devastating Valenti's lungs.
"It was open casket, and I was sitting there looking at Ceasar, and for a second, I saw myself lying in the casket," Valenti said. "I got up and had to walk to the back."
Borja's 21-year-old son, Cesar, campaigned during his father's last days for the White House to allocate more money to treat ground zero workers who have gotten ill from breathing in the toxic dust that settled after the two towers fell. Borja was a guest of Sen. Hillary Clinton at Bush's State of the Union address in Washington, and later met with the president when he visited New York. A day before their meeting, Bush announced he will propose spending at least $25 million more to fund a health care program for 9/11 responders at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan and a separate program for New York firefighters.
Valenti said $25 million would be a good start, but that much more is needed to care for the ailing workers who spent extended periods of time at ground zero.
"Is it enough? No, I don't think it's enough," Valenti said last week, noting that days before Bush's announcement, Clinton, who was at the Elmont American Legion hall stumping for Democratic candidate for state Senate Craig Johnson, asked Bush for $1.9 billion. "I've been told that a double lung transplant costs maybe three or four million dollars, and that's one person."
Valenti's lungs were severely damaged by the toxins he inhaled while working at ground zero following the 9/11 attacks, and as a result he needs a double lung transplant. Forced to quit his job as a grievance representative for Local 372, which represents Board of Education employees, because of the illness, Valenti also had to give up his health benefits. He has lived on donated oxygen for months because the deadline for reporting workers' compensation claims expired long before he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. Without a double lung transplant, pulmonary fibrosis sufferers usually die within five or six years.
His health insurance ran out before he completed a series of tests that would have put him on the national waiting list for a lung transplant. But a judge ruled on Dec. 20, 2006, that Valenti is entitled to workers' compensation, which will cover medical expenses associated with his pulmonary fibrosis and allow him to see doctors and finally get his name on the transplant list. He also receives $400 a week in back pay from August 2005.
John Feal, Valenti's friend and the founder of the Feal Good Foundation, an advocacy group for 9/11 first responders suffering from ground zero-related illnesses, called the workers' compensation ruling encouraging, but added that more must be done to help those who have gotten sick. "Individually, that's great," said Feal, a demolition supervisor who lost part of his foot when it was crushed by an eight-ton beam during the recovery effort at ground zero. "What stinks is that so many others in his position that have 9/11 illnesses still have problems getting [their compensation], or may never get theirs. Vito won a battle, but it's still a long war."
Valenti said there are many others like him, and to draw attention to their plight, he wants to be the living, breathing symbol of the 9/11 responders who have gotten ill.
"I want to be the voice," he said. "I want to go to the president and say 'enough is enough, we've lost too many lives.'"
At Borja's wake, as Valenti offered condolences to the late policeman's family, his wife grabbed him.
"Cesar's mom said, Are you Vito? She burst out crying and held me," Valenti said. "My heart goes out to you. I see you with the oxygen tank and I think of my husband. God bless you."

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