Life on the front lines: From 9/11 to a global pandemic, one man has seen more than most

April 30, 2020
Johan Zamoscianyk speaks to a group of health care workers
Johan Zamoscianyk speaks to team members at the respiratory specimen collection site in West Ashley the very first morning, right before it opened. Photo by Sarah Pack

*EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of profile stories on the brave men and women who work at the respiratory specimen collection site in West Ashley.*

The first day was tough.

Before it began, around 7 a.m., Johan Zamoscianyk and a team of about 20 others walked the maze of cones and tents in the parking lot of the West Ashley Medical Pavilion at Citadel Mall. They needed to know everything in a situation where no one knew anything. MUSC Health had just announced it would be the first in the state – and likely one of the first handful in the country – to set up a drive-through respiratory specimen collection site so that people could be tested for the novel coronavirus.

Zamoscianyk’s job was straightforward but extremely important. As nurses and nurse technicians exited the “red zone,” where patients were being swabbed and the virus could potentially reside, he would decontaminate them while still in their suits, using a bleach solution. Once clean, he would help them shed their equipment, with the peace of mind they were safe. It was up to him to make sure COVID-19 didn’t leave the contained area. 

No pressure, he told himself.

As he looked around that morning, he noticed that the team appeared confident. But when you’re in health care, that armor is second nature. The truth was they all had to be a little scared. And for Zamoscianyk, he couldn’t shake that nagging feeling of deja vu.

The fall of 2001

Zamoscianyk had just sat down for breakfast when the call came in.

Two beams of light going straight up into the night sky to symbolize the former Twin Towers in NYC 
Two beams of light illuminate the night sky, symbolic of the fallen Twin Towers. Photo by Leone Pieters on Unsplash

As an EMT for the New York Fire Department, his job was to head toward danger when others headed away from it. But the truth was, this wasn’t just another call. A plane had flown into the World Trade Center. And he and his crew would be part of the first wave of responders on the scene that fateful morning of September 11, 2001. 

Before leaving the station, he called his wife to let her know what he was going to be doing, and to say it might be a few days before he was able to check back in.

“She was just crying,” he said of that phone call. “She didn’t want me to go. But it was my job. I wasn’t going to turn away from what I do.”

Minutes later, he and his team arrived at the base of the north tower. 

Almost immediately they heard a loud rumble and felt the ground shaking as the south tower collapsed. Instinctively, they ran as debris and dust rained down around them. 

“People everywhere were just covered in dust. It was surreal,” he said.

The next three days were a blur of destruction, despair and terror. Finally, Zamoscianyk rotated out and met back up with his wife. She was relieved to have him out of harm’s way, but the truth was a part of him never left those towers.

Another attack

Some people are charmed, others cursed. Most of us fall somewhere in between. 

For Zamoscianyk, there’s more nuance to it. It’s almost as if he’s charmed – by curse.

His very first day of work for the NYFD was February 26, 1993. Though he’d like to say he remembers the date because it’s written at the bottom of his employment physical, the reality is it was the day a truck bomb detonated below the north tower of the World Trade Center. 

Over 1,300 pounds of urea nitrate-hydrogen gas exploded beneath the twin towers with the intent of taking them both down. Fortunately, it failed to do so.  Still, six people died and more than a thousand were injured in the process.

And that was the world in which Zamoscianyk’s career began – with all hell breaking loose.

In the years that followed, there were the burning buildings, the scrub fires, the seemingly never-ending haze in the air after 9/11. He began to have a tougher time breathing. Smoke would set him into uncontrollable coughing. Over his then 13-year career with the NYFD, he had gained lots of friends, tons of experience but sadly, a medical condition as well. He was diagnosed with chronic asthma. 

For a firefighter, this was the closest thing to a career-ender. 

Reluctantly, in 2006, in an effort to get away from the cold winters – something that also gave him trouble breathing – he packed up his family and moved south to Charleston, where he got a job working with MUSC as an EMT. 

The greatest risk

Medical personnel put their lives on the line every time they care for a patient with COVID-19-like symptoms. Add in a condition like asthma and things get even bleaker. 

Johan Zamoscianyk sorts supplies at the drive-through collection site 
Zamoscianyk readies supplies before his 10-hour shift working at the drive-through specimen collection site. Photo by Sarah Pack

According to the CDC, people with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma are at a significantly higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19. Because their lung tissue may be less elastic, once infected, it can set the stage for a more severe infection because of scarring, inflammation or lung damage. As a result, this group is far more likely to die.  

Those lucky enough to escape the clutches of the virus, might then find life-saving drugs such as albuterol inhalers much more difficult to come by. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, supplies are much more limited because hospitals are increasingly using the devices to help COVID-19 patients breathe better. 

Zamoscianyk recalls when he first told his wife about MUSC Health’s plan to start the drive-thru screening site. He knew it was his calling. “I had trained my entire career for hazardous situations like this, and here it was – my opportunity to help when people needed it most,” he said.

The irony wasn’t lost on the 54-year-old father of three girls. He knew he was once again playing with fire.

His wife pleaded for him not to volunteer to work at the site. How many times must he tempt fate?

“But I just couldn’t say no. I mean, who is better equipped to do this than me? My whole career has led to this moment.”

Full circle

They treated 17 patients that first day.

Since then, the West Ashley collection site has averaged close to 200 drive-through patients a day. One day, they sampled 427 in a single 10-hour shift.

“Some people think, ‘Why subject yourself to that increased risk?’ Well, because that’s 200 less people going downtown to our hospital. And that makes everybody safer,” he said.

Though a high-pressure job, it’s not without its occasional downtime. And with that comes an opportunity to think, reflect. And Zamoscianyk can’t help but see the similarities between working at the MUSC Health collection site and being in Manhattan on 9/11. 

The initial fear, followed by the questions. 

“How could something like this happen?” “Could we have done more to prevent it?” “What do we do next?”

But then the human spirit rallies and people come together to do amazing things.

For those on the frontlines in the battle against COVID-19, much like the first responders at the twin towers, the pace has been frenetic. Life has been scary, but once again, there is a renewed sense of hope in humanity. 

“We’re seeing lots of people coming together. Restaurants are dropping off food for us. People are making us signs and dropping off gifts. The country is rallying around health care. It’s people taking care of people. And it gives me hope.”