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September 08, 2023

Overcoming tragedy: Chief medical officer reflects on 9/11 experience

IU Health North Hospital

Overcoming tragedy: Chief medical officer reflects on 9/11 experience

Dr. Rocky Singh, chief medical officer of IU Health North, was a third-year resident in New York City when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001.

By Charlotte Stefanski,, writer for IU Health's Indianapolis Suburban Region

As a young boy growing up in India, Rocky Singh would often go to work with his father, a pediatrician.

He’d sit in the clinic, watching his father see patients. The experience would spark an interest in medicine, and a few years later, Singh would be on his way to medical school himself.

At first, he was interested in surgery, but as Singh did more research, he found that studying medicine would be the right mix of using his knowledge and working with his hands.

While Singh was completing his medical degree in India, he had the opportunity to travel to the United States. His uncle encouraged him to apply for a residency program in New York City. He passed the entrance exam and began his residency at the State University of New York at Lutheran Medical Center.

Like every other American, Singh couldn’t possibly foresee the tragic events that would happen just three years later on Sept. 11, 2001. Now, as chief medical officer of IU Health North, he’s reflecting on the fateful day, 22 years later.

A day like no other

It was a routine morning for Singh, who was a third-year resident, and serving as chief resident, at the time.

He had arrived at the hospital early that morning and was assigned to the Emergency department—working through the day’s schedules, chatting with his medical director and helping out where he could.

The Emergency department often got busier around 9 am, and the team was waiting for the rush.

But around 8:46 am, there was word the north tower of the World Trade Center was on fire. At the time, Singh and his colleagues hadn’t realized a plane had hit the building and caused the fire.

The hospital was just a few miles away from the World Trade Center, and many hospital team members had stepped out onto the fifth-floor balcony to see for themselves.

“We saw that the World Trade Center was on fire and that shocked us,” Singh said. “We didn’t have a lot of information—we thought a fire had just broken out—but we knew there was going to be an impact for us.”

Singh and his leaders went back downstairs, pulling together the Emergency department and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) team. He called everyone who was on pre-call and post-call to come in and help.

The city’s first responders were already in route to the scene, but just 17 minutes later, at 9:03 am, the second plane hit the south tower, and it became clear that this wasn’t just a fire.

“That’s when my heart sank, you know, this is something a lot bigger,” Singh said.

The hospital immediately created an incident command team, and Singh called for every third-year resident, pre-call and post-call, to come in and help. He also canceled all elective surgeries to free up space in the operating rooms.

“We were all were back in the Emergency department, trying to figure it out what could we do, how many ambulances can we send down there to pick up people,” he said.

He remembers a trauma orthopedics physician and a surgeon heading out with EMS crews. While Singh was expecting mass casualties, his team was only seeing a lot of fall injuries and hip fractures.

That changed around 10:30 am, when the North tower collapsed.

“The biggest sinking sensation was when the towers actually came down. The first one and then the second one. There was dust everywhere,” Singh recalled. “We were just saying, ‘I don't know what we're going to do at this point.’”

It was all hands on deck in the Emergency department, with more and more patients coming in with multiple traumas, including burns, smoke inhalation and more. Anyone who could be safely discharged from the hospital was encouraged to do so.

While EMS teams had picked up patients with more serious injuries earlier in the day, more patients who were able to walk away from the attack or who had been close by on the street began to come in with breathing issues and other minor injuries.

“We were all committed to it and stayed to help with whatever we could. I called my wife and told her, ‘Don’t expect me home tonight.’ I just stayed overnight, seeing what I could do,” Singh said. “That was the sad part. We didn’t get a whole lot of patients (after the towers fell). Most of the people in there died because they were on a higher floor or stuck inside. It’s a blur after that.”

From New York City to Indiana

Plenty of things changed after 9/11, from the way travelers board airplanes to extra security measures at landmarks and government offices.

Things also changed in the world of medicine, with better practices for mass casualty scenarios. Singh recalls many New York hospitals implementing metal detectors and stationing security guards.

As things began to shift inside hospitals, so did the overall atmosphere in New York City.

“At that point, it was just more sad. The thing was that for people who lived in New York, the World Trade Centers were a landmark,” Singh said. “I would look and find the towers and say, ‘That’s south, I need to go west.’ So I knew just looking at towers. The environment completely changed.”

Singh remembers a lot of anger after the attacks, especially those with Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds. A fellow trauma surgeon at the hospital had even been harassed.

At the time, Singh’s wife was looking to apply to dental school at Indiana University, and the cost of living in the Midwest was way cheaper than the city.

By early 2002, Singh wrapped up his residency program and made the move to Indiana, where he began to work as an emergency physician at IU Health Morgan Hospital in Martinsville. He also has worked at IU Health Methodist.

In 2017, Singh accepted a position as chief medical officer in IU Health's Indianapolis Suburban Region. He currently serves as chief medical officer at IU Health North Hospital in Carmel.

Overcoming tragedy—22 years in the making

While the term “frontline providers” became widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be applied to any disaster, whether it be natural or manmade.

In the Emergency department, EMS, providers and TMs are often the first to encounter patients at their most medically vulnerable.

“They see things that are sometimes not easy for them. It’s traumatic to be there, but it's also rewarding,” Singh said. “You get to see the good and the bad, you get to see the fruits of your work, how things changed for somebody and their life.”

While 9/11 is still fresh in Singh’s memory—even decades later—he also remembers those good moments in his career, like saving a child that had drowned, or having a man come back to the hospital with doughnuts after a team brought him back to life from a heart attack.

There are both ups and downs, but he’s always seen frontline team members as committed to making a difference in people’s lives.

It can be hard to go back to work after tragedy, whether it be an event like 9/11 or even losing one patient. What kept Singh going is that other patients were relying on him.

“People are depending upon you. If I don't do my job, that could put somebody in danger. When I'm in the hospital and I'm seeing patients, even after something tragic, you have to commit to the present.”

When things get challenging, Singh said it’s important to connect back to your values and purpose— to do good in the lives of others.

He stresses that team members can’t completely shut themselves off though and encourages them to debrief with fellow colleagues, leaders or hospital chaplains.

“As long as you can face the mirror and say, 'I did what I could'—no matter the outcome—what’s happened has happened,” Singh said.