, Volume 80, Issue 3, pp 173-189
Date: 08 Jul 2009

Stories Behind the Symptoms: A Qualitative Analysis of the Narratives of 9/11 Rescue and Recovery Workers

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A qualitative study of the experiences of rescue and recovery workers/volunteers at Ground Zero following the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 is reported. Information was extracted from a semi-structured clinical evaluation of 416 responders who were the initial participants in a large scale medical and mental health screening and treatment program for 9/11 responders. Qualitative analysis revealed themes that spanned four categories— occupational roles, exposures, attitudes/experiences, and outcomes related to the experience of Ground Zero. Themes included details regarding Ground Zero roles, grotesque experiences such as smells, the sense of the surreal nature of responding, and a turning to rituals to cope after leaving Ground Zero. These findings personalize the symptom reports and diagnoses that have resulted from the 9/11 responders’ exposure to Ground Zero, yielding richer information than would otherwise be available for addressing the psychological dimensions of disasters. This work shows that large scale qualitative surveillance of trauma-exposed populations is both relevant and feasible.