Disaster epidemiologist Dr. K.C. Rondello was on his way to get settled into a new job with the health care system in Suffolk County, New York — on Long Island — when news of the first plane hit. It was Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was listening to the radio. I heard an announcement that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. At the time it was believed to have been a small, private, propeller plane. I didn’t think much of it,” said Rondello.

“I’d be foolish not to worry about what could happen. I also try to not obsess about things I have no control over,” said Rondello.

By the time he arrived, he realized how significant the situation was.

Unsure of what to do, Rondello waited for the screenings and tests he was scheduled to have in order to get security clearance. As he waited, he watched the scene unfolding in lower Manhattan on the TV screen in front of him.

The first tower fell. Moments later, the CEO of his hospital came and found Rondello — and told him to get to the ER.

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“I remember saying to him, ‘Bill, I’m not even cleared to be in the hospital yet. I just got here. I don’t even have my ID badge.’ He said something to the effect of, ‘None of that matters now — the U.S. is under attack.’ It was a very abrupt acknowledgement of just how significant things were and how quickly things were unfolding,” Rondello told LifeZette.

Few personnel stayed in the ER long. The hospital and county put together several units that went to Ground Zero to help. They stayed and worked downtown for weeks.

Rondello, who spent weeks down at Ground Zero, says his cough has gotten progressively worse.

Fifteen years later, these memories are still very raw. “It’s weird, in some ways. It seems like it’s been so long, but the memories are still so vivid and my thoughts about it are still so acute that it feels very recent.”

The cough that has gotten progressively worse over the years doesn’t allow him to forget.

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“There are people who I worked with at Ground Zero who are deceased, who are younger than I am. I have many friends and colleagues who have some of the same symptoms and some different symptoms, and I worry about them. That’s going to be, for all of us, a lifelong issue — it’s not going to go away or resolve with time. And since there is such a poor understanding of what the long-term consequences are of our exposure at Ground Zero. I’d be foolish not to worry about what could happen down the road, yet I also try not to obsess about things I have no control over.”

Rondello still works in emergency management. His role as a disaster epidemiologist in the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) means that when there are disasters throughout the country, he is often deployed. The NDMS is one of the federal government’s primary emergency medical response arms — those who work for the NDMS function essentially the same way military reservists do.

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He is also dispatched — through a number of non-governmental international organizations — to disaster locations around the world where medical care is needed.

But his primary job, in large part due to 9/11, is now sa clinical associate professor of emergency management at Adelphi University College of Nursing and Public Health in Garden City, New York. He joined the staff  in 2005. The university, shortly after the terror attacks, felt it would be good practice for all incoming freshmen to get some baseline level of education in emergency management and disaster preparedness.

While a program there very quickly took shape, Rondello and his colleagues realized they had far more material than would fit into one intro course. They have since helped Adelphi develop emergency management programs at the associate, bachelor’s, graduate, and master’s degree levels.

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“It’s been very gratifying. Adelphi was very forward thinking in committing to instruction in emergency management. There are now many programs in universities around the country, but Adelphi was one of the first,” said Rondello.

“Pre-9/11, we would talk about emergencies and disasters until we were blue in the face. For people who didn’t do this for a living, it really wasn’t a priority. Now, for better or for worse — politicians, reporters, lay people, everyone has an interest in emergency management and can understand its relevance in a way they couldn’t before September 11,” he added.

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Still, getting people to take responsibility and accountability for their own disaster preparedness remains a huge struggle for those in the profession. For every terrorist attack that happens, there are hundreds of natural disasters.

“The biggest lesson people need to be reminded of is this: How well they weather a crisis, whether it’s a technological disaster, a meteorological disaster or a terrorist disaster, is largely in their own hands. The government has plans and equipment and specialists in place. But, in many cases, it’s not going to be the government that comes to your rescue.”

Without wanting to scare people, he added, it’s not a matter of “if, but when.”

“People are going to face some kind of disaster challenge or crisis — and if they take simple steps of preparing themselves and their loved ones now, it can make an enormous difference to the outcome.”

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