After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York City, New York City police detective Rich Volpe was one of the thousands of first responders, who rushed to ground zero.
What greeted him was a scene you might expect to see in a war zone.
There were twisted pieces of steel sometimes 40 – 50 stories high, and mountains of debris all around him. There was dust and smoke everywhere. He sat there for probably five minutes just trying to process whether what he was seeing around him was even real.
“It was an ugly, ugly scene,” he noted.
When Volpe went home a day or so later, he took a shower. Afterwards, he had to take a dustpan to sweep out the bottom of his bathtub because so much dust and debris had been washed off his body.
He remembers thinking that something bad health wise was probably going to come from this. Sadly he would be proven right a few months later.
Volpe and other detectives spent about nine months after 9/11 helping sift through debris looking for human remains either at ground zero or the landfill.
Debris from ground zero was loaded into trucks, and shipped to an old large landfill in Stanton Island, which had been closed due to radiation. The landfill was so large it was as high as the Statue of Liberty.
The debris would be spread out in fields on top of the landfill. Volpe and his fellow detectives worked 12-14 hour shifts sorting through the debris and putting body parts into 25 gallon buckets that were then sent to the FBI trailer for DNA testing and identification.
In late June 2002, Volpe was diagnosed with IgA Nephropathy. In essence, the disease shuts down the little filters in the kidneys that remove toxins from your body.
“I never knew until this happened how important your kidneys were,” Volpe said. “I lost both my kidneys from all the toxins down there.”
His partner was diagnosed with Leukemia about five or six months later, but survived. About half a dozen other colleagues weren’t so lucky.
Within one year of his diagnosis, Volpe had lost about 60 percent of his kidney function.
His doctor in New York knew almost immediately that the rare disease, which normally affects people in their 50’s and 60’s, was related to Volpe’s 9/11 work. Volpe was only 33 years old at the time, and was eventually forced to retire after working only 13 years.
Two of Volpe’s co-workers were also diagnosed with the disease about the same time, went in kidney failure about the same time, and also received kidney transplants at the same time.
June 3 will mark the six-year anniversary of Volpe’s kidney transplant.
Volpe has been among about 400 ground zero first responders, who were part of a Mt. Sinai study looking at kidney and autoimmune disease among 9/11 first responders.
“So far they believe it came through the lungs,” he noted.
In the ensuing years after 9/11, Volpe was also among the list of more than 20,000 9/11 first responders, volunteers and survivors, who fell ill from the toxic dust and fumes from ground zero.
Earlier this year, Congress approved $10.2 billion in funding for September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to help cover medical claims from ground zero workers.
The law and its funding will help a lot of Volpe’s friends and co-workers, but as it stands now, it won’t help him.
Volte said the fund picks and chooses what illness will be attached to it. For instance, all the lung disease and every single cancer is covered, but kidney damage isn’t included.
Volte recently attended the Club for Growth Winter Economic Conference in Palm Beach, Florida, along with Forcht Group of Kentucky Founder and CEO Terry Forcht.
The Club for Growth is a national network of over 250,000 pro-growth, limited government Americans who share in the belief that prosperity and opportunity come from economic freedom, according to its website.
Volte said that he was able to speak with U.S. Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz during the conference about kidney disease not being included in the fund.
Cruz told him that he thought the fund had taken care of everyone.
Volte noted that efforts are now underway in an attempt to add kidney disease or kidney failure to the illnesses covered by the fund through the autoimmune disease category.