New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill recently appointed mesothelioma specialist Dr. Raja Flores to the Society of Honorary Police Surgeons.
The prestigious appointment stems from Flores’ continued, long-running service to so many first responders — particularly policemen and firemen from the 9/11 World Trade Center (WTC) terrorist attack in 2001.
Although Flores has received many honors throughout his medical career, this one might be his most appreciated.
“This is a huge honor for me,” Flores told Asbsetos.com. “I come from a family of cops. Police work is in my blood. My grandfather and grandmother were cops. My uncles were cops, too. It truly is a privilege to serve these men and women who put their lives on the line for us every day.”
Flores, a thoracic surgeon at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, has been involved in the aftermath of 9/11 since Day 1. He was there in the emergency room helping care for victims immediately afterward.
He is there today — 16 years later — at the World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai, doing follow-up care that includes monitoring, surgical treatment and support for the rescue and recovery workers, including many from the police force.
“I’ve taken care of a lot of cops and firemen in this program. I’ve operated on a lot of them,” he said. “I’m familiar with the culture. That’s important when treating them. There is a huge amount of pride there. There is the do-the-right-thing attitude, the great moral compass. Understanding that culture really helps me treat them.”
His role will continue — and likely grow — in the coming years because of his expertise treating asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, which can take 20 to 50 years to develop.
Although the memory of 9/11 is beginning to fade, the biggest threat of asbestos-related diseases is just beginning.
It stems from the weeks of rescue and cleanup efforts done under the toxic cloud that blanketed the area and contained more than 400 tons of pulverized asbestos, all released from the rubble of the twin towers.
Nearly 7,000 survivors and first responders have been diagnosed with some form of 9/11-related cancer.
Mesothelioma is not among the top 15 cancers found in the WTC Health Program, but that is expected to change in the coming years.
Responders and survivors have been encouraged to undergo annual CT scans, which can provide early warning signs for serious health issues such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
“Over the next few years, I think we’re going to see an uptick. We have been seeing more and more changes of the pleura [lining around the lungs],” he said. “We’re seeing changes that could predispose them to mesothelioma. Not enough time has passed yet, but I still believe we’re going to see that in the future.”
Flores compares the upcoming asbestos-disease problem from the WTC to what has happened in Libby, Montana, where 70 years of mining in a small town led to the longest-running asbestos health disaster in American history.
Although the mining stopped in 1990, new health issues continue to arise today for those who once worked there or lived in the surrounding area.
More than 400 Libby residents died from asbestos-related diseases and an estimated 3,000 have been sickened.
The asbestos dust traveled for miles, endangering everyone who lived nearby.
“I don’t have data to back it up, but there are going to be a significant number who develop problems in the future,” Flores said of 9/11 survivors and first responders. “We have to make sure we take good care of them.”
Flores was one of 13 physicians honored by the NYPD last month. It was designed to recognize expertise in a particular medical specialty.
The Society of Honorary Police Surgeons allows members of the police force, when medical help is required, to identify a specialist who best fits their needs.
“They need a special type of doctor, not someone who just treats them, but someone who understands them,” Flores said. “I know the culture well. My best friend today is a cop. When I look back, it seems like everyone I grew up with became either a cop or a criminal.”