Lila Nordstrom ('02)'s 9/11 Health Advocacy
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Lila Nordstrom (’02) sat in her first period architecture class on the 10th floor on September 11, 2001. Moments later, she and over 3,000 other Stuyvesant students witnessed the North Tower of the World Trade Center covered with smoke and flames. Within minutes, Stuyvesant shook once again as the South Tower fell.
On just her third day of senior year, Nordstrom sped down 10 flights of stairs and exited the building—just four blocks shy of the attack—and, with no clear instruction or order, ran out of lower Manhattan as the buildings she passed were engulfed in a cloud of smoke.
Twenty years later, thousands of New Yorkers remain affected by the tragedy that occurred on that day.
Nordstrom and her classmates returned to Stuyvesant on October 9, 2001, less than a month after the attack. Despite the air’s acrid stench, the roaring fires at Ground Zero, and a garbage barge stationed right beside the school, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency declared the air clean enough for all students to return to school. It was not until the summer of 2002 when the air vents that were polluted inches deep with black dust were cleaned and the auditorium upholstery was found to contain 250 times the legal limit for asbestos. As parents’ safety concerns mounted, government officials stood by the claims of clean air in the building. Forced to choose between an education that they had worked hard to attain and their health, thousands of high school students returned to the 10-story Tribeca building unaware of the effects it would have on them years later.
On the verge of graduating college in 2006, Nordstrom, who has been afflicted with asthma for her whole life, sought out medical treatment for her exposure to toxins during her time at Stuyvesant after 9/11. Prior to the passing of the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies could deny coverage to candidates with preexisting conditions, and Nordstrom was to be taken off her parents’ insurance as soon as she graduated. Following the death of James Zadroga, a 34-year-old 9/11 first responder, due to lung disease, she realized the effect 9/11 could have on her former classmates.
Shortly after, Nordstrom wrote a letter asking that the government grant all students who attended Stuyvesant during the 2001-2002 school year free healthcare for the rest of their lives. This letter garnered hundreds of signatures from Stuyvesant alumni. She named the project StuyHealth, an organization that represents the young people impacted by 9/11 and its cleanup to ensure that they are receiving healthcare coverage. The movement caught the attention of local politicians like then Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, as well as federal officials, including Representative Jerry Nadler (’65), and former Senator Hillary Clinton.
Nordstrom worked hand in hand with Representatives Nadler and Carolyn Maloney to pass legislation for 9/11 survivors. “There were a lot of times that a lot of government officials completely forgot about the non-responders in the 9/11 community,” Nordstrom said. “We thought the needs of the community would get chucked out of the program entirely. Certainly, it was important to me that students be explicitly mentioned.”
Nordstrom worked with Stuyvesant alumni and the larger 9/11 survivor community to gauge the needs of the thousands of New Yorkers who were left in the dust after the attack. “A lot of [the work] was about relaying community needs to the representatives and being in conversation with them about that.”
Nordstrom testified before the House Judiciary Committee in 2019, representing hundreds of thousands of survivors who were excluded from the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. “I feel like that was the culmination of a lot of attempts that I had made to get my story put on the record and to get the story of young people of 9/11 put on the record,” she said.
Nordstrom sees that many people struggle to see themselves as victims after 9/11. “The responders have this ability to see themselves as heroes, but when you’re part of the survivor community, you just feel angry,” she said.
A large part of her work is having conversations with peers and allowing people to understand that they are part of the survivor community. “Anyone who’s a 9/11 survivor deserves the services that are available and deserves to be the focus, because we were all misled by the same government and misinformation,” Nordstrom said. “We were all put in the same danger.”
Nordstrom’s new memoir, “Some Kids Left Behind,” shines a spotlight on the young survivors of 9/11 and how their lives have been impacted not just by the attack, but also by the American government and healthcare system. “I was noticing how little coverage the survivor community was getting,” she said. “And this story deserved a telling in full [...] The story of what happened to the community is just not well understood outside of New York.”
By writing “Some Kids Left Behind,” Nordstrom saw this large, complicated story come together decades later. “I got to experience how other people experienced this story,” she said. “The book allowed me to write down not just what happened, but [also] my thoughts on what happened [and] lessons on what happened from doing all of this [advocacy] work and from being engrossed in this story for so long.”
While 9/11 has proven one of the most significant events in recent American history, she found that the accounts of many New Yorkers who lived through the attack still remain untold. “It was important to tell the story in a way that wasn’t just about men and heroes, but [also] about what a regular community has to do to [cope] with such a disaster,” she said.
Nordstrom aims to widen the scope by telling not only the story of different communities, but also about the different facets of 9/11. She noted, “There’s this incentive to tell the story [of 9/11] as if it’s the most solemn, most important thing that’s ever happened,” which makes the event incomprehensible to those who were not in the midst of the chaos. Rather than simply repeating the horrifying details of the tragedy, Nordstrom covered the typical, the weird, the bad, and even the good of 9/11, wanting it to be a book that anyone can see themselves in. “If you can’t see the full scope of the experience, then you’ll never be able to relate to what happened and apply it to your life and learn something from it,” she said.
Nordstrom feels that learning from 9/11 is just as important as commemorating the event. “To me, the memory of 9/11 should be used to reframe choices we make in the present and to apply lessons to crises in the present, so people don’t have to go through what we went through,” she said.
As we progress, we find that history is revised, or reframed, as Nordstrom says: “I wish that in the case of 9/11, we were more open to that reframing, so groups that were not part of the original narrative are able to articulate lessons that could’ve prevented them from suffering, and that we’re open to hearing those and applying them going forward.”