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CAP Interviews John Feal, 9/11 First Responder and Founder of the FealGood Foundation

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On Sept. 17, 2001, after five intense days of recovery work at Ground Zero, a steel beam fell and crushed John Feal’s foot. Feal, a construction worker and U.S. Army veteran, spent the next several months in the hospital, enduring gangrene, several surgeries, and septic shock.

The federal government has so far provided little assistance for John Feal and the thousands of first responders who suffered injuries or developed respiratory problems, rare cancers, or post-traumatic stress disorder. These American heroes have been largely ignored just as their need for longer-term care and financial assistance are surfacing.

That’s why Feal founded the FealGood Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading awareness and educating the public about the catastrophic health effects on 9/11 first responders and helping them get financial assistance to receive badly needed treatments.

The Center for American Progress strongly supports implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, both to prevent future attacks in America and to stem the rising tide of global terrorism.

The Center for American Progress talked to Feal recently, just before he donated a kidney to a volunteer firefighter. You can read the interview highlights below, or the full transcript here.

  • Listen to John Feal on why he’s donating a kidney to a stranger
  • Listen to John Feal on why he’s fighting to help other first responders
  • Listen to John Feal on meeting Michael Moore

Interview Highlights

Center for American Progress: Tell me a little bit about why you started your foundation and why you keep doing what you’re doing.

John Feal: On Sept. 11, I was up in Nanuet, about 45 minutes outside of the city, doing a demolition job. And when the first tower hit, everyone heard over the radio that a tower had been hit by a plane but no one knew the full extent. So when the second tower was hit they shut the job down immediately and I gave everybody the option of finding shelter or going home to their loved ones because no one knew, we weren’t given any information, like we were under attack or anything.

I decided to go home, I wasn’t going stay there. There were absolutely no cars on the road, ’cause nobody could go westward toward the city. I could see the mushroom. When I got back to the office they said, “Do you want to go down there?”

The next day I went down there, on the 12th. From the 12th to the 17th I supervised the clean up of Site 7, then on the 17th of September, roughly about 8,000 pounds of steel crushed my left foot. The guy next to me fainted. I took his belt off and I made a tourniquet because blood was shooting out of my foot about six feet into the air in three different directions.

I looked like a human sprinkler. I hobbled over to the curb and took my boot off and all my bones were sticking out of my sock. So I had to cut off my sock with a razor blade knife. The fire department was there in about three minutes. God bless them. With that, they put me on a cart, put me in an ambulance and I had a four-car police escort to Bellevue like I was Elvis.

I spent about nine or 10 days in Bellevue where I developed gangrene. Little did I know—I was so naïve and gullible I thought gangrene was something from the 1900s with a gunshot wound. And the doctor goes, “This guy’s going to die of gangrene.”

I became organ septic. When you become septic you have organ shutdown. So I was becoming sicker, and I made my mother get me out of that hospital. I went to Plain View, first fighting for my life, then for no organ removal. I spent about nine or 10 weeks there. My consolation was losing part of my foot after surgery after surgery after surgery.

After I got out of the hospital, that first year I was like every other 9/11 responder. Why me, why am I getting denied. I had to fight. While everybody else had respiratories and cancers, I was fighting for a physical injury. It’s hard for them to prove it even though they shouldn’t have to. I had a physical injury, documented, but I was in the same boat as [the other 9/11 responders] being denied. I eventually won my workman’s comp case though, which was an insult, of $52,000.

CAP: That’s from your employer?

JF: Yeah, that’s comp. Then I got denied the first time around on Social Security. And I appealed and Congressman [Tim] Bishop’s office helped me out and I won. In 2002 I started going to support groups, just meeting other 9/11 responders. Then 2003 came, and it was a chain of events that really put life in perspective. I just had surgery; I was averaging about three or four surgeries on both feet.

But in 2003, I had just come back from the doctor, I’m on crutches, I’m sitting in McDonald’s, and I remember this day. I’m sitting there eating a number two. This guy came in with his two daughters, and one of them was severely handicapped, and they sit right next to me, and the handicapped daughter was probably a year or two older than the younger daughter.

The father never helped her once. For her to eat a Happy Meal, she had to struggle just to get her mouth around the straw. It took her 45 minutes just to eat a little cheeseburger and little fries. And she was severely handicapped, couldn’t speak, sitting there playing with her sister.

I was sitting there thinking to myself, how bad do I really have it? This girl was born without a choice. I have a choice. I can feel sorry for myself or I can help others and fight back. With that I started calling different politicians and media and trying to advocate for others who were sick and dying.

I started advocating and as an individual I started helping people. I would just shame grocery stores or lumber yards to donate materials to 9/11 responders who couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have a name, you know, I was just doing it.

I’ve been diagnosed by four doctors with post-traumatic stress disorder, and I refuse to take a pill for it. And I refuse to take any more medications and put anything else in my body. So that was my therapy, helping people.

So in 2004, I co-founded an organization called Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes with a couple other 9/11 responders. Those responders were compensated by the Sept. 11 fund, so they didn’t know what it was to suffer financially.

CAP: So they were mostly the firefighters?

JF: Right, so they also wanted to pass new laws and new bills. I was a strong believer in the laws and bills that we have now would be effective if our elected officials would just do what is morally right. That’s wishing.

So with that I resigned. Because I wanted to help 9/11 responders on an everyday basis. Because they needed help every day. So I started the FealGood Foundation. My first fundraiser I did a golf outing and three 9/11 responders went home with $1,300 each.

But the FealGood Foundation’s not about fundraising. It’s about advocating for worker’s comp, Social Security, crime victims, and the basic benefits that these people deserve. So when we get a 9/11 responder who comes to us, we turn him to a lawyer who sits on our board, and he’s from Brecher Fishman in the city. They’re in good hands now. And then we have a public relations lady who does a video on them and it goes on the Internet. And it gets them out there.

But three four five times a year, we’ll do a fundraiser, and we’ll raise some money for some 9/11 responders. Is it a lot of money? No. I just did a July 21 concert and we wrote checks to 12 responders. That’s pretty good. It’s not great. Last year I raised $15,800 and I donated $16,400, so money’s coming out of my own pocket.

CAP: About how many people do you think that helps?

JF: I’ve probably written close to over 100 checks to different responders. But I’ve helped hundreds in workman’s comp, Social Security, crime victims. A lot of these guys didn’t even have a lawyer. I’ve gotten David Worby over 300 clients. He’s the one who’s leading the class action lawsuit. So we’re about spreading awareness and advocating and educating the mass.

CAP: You’re donating a kidney next week. What inspired you to do that and who will it be going to?

JF: I got an email back in September of last year from a man named Paul Grossfeld, and Paul’s like, “I think what you’re doing is great, and by the way, can you link me to your website because I’m on the kidney donor transplant list?”

And I’m like, “No, you can just have mine.” So he emailed me back and he was like, “You’re kidding me.” So it took three or four days to convince him, but that was how fast my response was.

In November of last year we made an appointment to go to Columbia Presbyterian in Manhattan to see if we would be a match. And there was a one in 30,000 chance we would be a match. I should’ve played lotto that day, because we were. And we weren’t a 100 percent match but we were compatible.

You know, as Americans, we have extra food, we have extra money, we have extra body parts. Through the foundation, we give out money, we give out food, and individually I’m giving a body part.

And I don’t think there’s a better feeling in the world, other than winning lotto, and I never won the lotto, so I don’t know that feeling. But this is a pretty good feeling that I get to actually make a difference. And I’m going to use this as a platform to raise awareness for 9/11 responders who need organ donations.

So many 9/11 responders need double lung transplants because they have pulmonary fibrosis. I never knew anybody in my life who had pulmonary fibrosis, let alone heard of it, before 9/11. And now 12 of these people have come to our foundation for help.

If you could donate your lungs while you’re alive, I would donate my lungs, but obviously you can’t. I’m going to raise awareness for people to find their driver’s licenses, be organ donors, reach out to America.

And if they lose a loved one, as sad as that may be, it could be going to a good cause, they could be helping a 9/11 responder. And that’s the real reason why I’m doing this.

CAP: To talk a bit about Michael Moore, you put him in touch with the responders who he took to Cuba in his movie.

JF: In March 2006, they came to my house and asked me if I wanted to be in a documentary about people who fell through the health cracks. And I was like, yeah, I qualify, so come over. So they came over, filmed me for about six hours, and they fell in love with me. But then I didn’t hear from them after that.

But they called me a few months later and they’re like, “Uh, we’re taking a different approach on the movie. You want to go to Cuba?”

And I was like, “What am I going to do in Cuba, grow a foot?” And they laughed. I laughed.

And I said, “I’d rather give my spot up to somebody who really needs it. I mean if you’re going to go and get them help, I’ll give you the people, but get them help. And if you don’t get them help, and you just use them, you’re going to have a problem with me.”

CAP: How has the publicity from “SiCKO” affected your organization and awareness for your cause?

JF: It benefited us.

They asked me if I wanted to see the private screening. They picked me up in a car and brought me to see it, and you know, it’s a two-hour movie, and they didn’t get to the 9/11 part until the end, the last 15 or 20 minutes. But before it got to the 9/11 part, I must have cried six or seven times, and I’m not the world’s most emotional person.

After the movie [Michael Moore] stood up and he did a Q&A. I got a chance to bring a couple FealGood Foundation Board members to the screening room and they got up and asked a couple of questions. And he said, “Oh you’re from the FealGood Foundation.” And he said, “Well, I’d love to meet John.”

And I said, “Well, I’m John, Michael.”

I go to shake his hand, and he pulls me down and he hugs me. And when I went to walk away, he grabbed me by the arm and he had to tell everybody who I was and what I did. And I said it right to him, I said, “I don’t agree with everything you do, but I respect you and I find you to be the most humble person I’ve ever met.” He’s so sincere and humble.

I went on Fox and Friends in the morning a couple weeks later because everybody in the media kept calling me every day 20 times a day asking me who were the three responders who went to Cuba, and I wouldn’t tell them.

They put me on there with another 9/11 responder who is anti-Michael Moore. In the green room, he’s telling everybody that Michael Moore’s people approached him to go to Cuba, which they never did, because I gave them the original list.

I went up to the guy and I said, “Look, you’re a 9/11 responder, I love you, I’ll even help you,” and I have helped this guy a couple times before. And I said, “If you go out there on national TV live and say that they approached you, I will call you a liar. I will verbally abuse you.”

So when he got out there, he didn’t say it. But they were anti-Michael this and anti-Michael that, and I said, “You know what”—I said it to the host of the show—“If you had a 12-year-old son who had a brain tumor, and he was dying, and they said the only place that kid could get help was in Cuba, you would take your son to Cuba.” They all looked at me like, ”Oh, yeah, I guess.”

Then the 9/11 responder that was there, he was like, “Well, I believe in Mt. Sinai, and I believe that Mt. Sinai is helping 9/11 responders.” Now, the three people that went to Cuba, they were all enrolled in Mt. Sinai.

So my response to him, on national TV, was, “I sit on the advisory board of Mt. Sinai”—which I do, I’ve earned that title. I go to their meetings and I tell them what’s wrong with them, because they want to hear that.

But Mt. Sinai does not treat, Mt. Sinai monitors. There’s a difference. When we get federal money there’s no treatment, it’s all monitoring.

The last time I checked, treatment saves lives, not monitoring. Preventive medicine saves lives. What the government has been giving all this time is an insult. And the politicians when they open their mouths there’s nothing more than political rhetoric because you can line the bottom of your birdcage with what you read in the paper.

CAP: Is there anything that they can do? Or what would you want them to do if they were to act?

JF: Well, what they need to do now and they need to do immediately is to reopen the Sept. 11 fund. And the only reason why I say they need to reopen the 9/11 fund is that in 2004, Congress created the billion-dollar fund to compensate the people that were sick and injured at Ground Zero and to offset the lawsuits that the contractors and  city and the contractors would face.

The city and Bloomberg, Mayor Bloomberg—that pompous arrogant billionaire, he’s so out of touch with reality. Granted, he wasn’t the mayor at 9/11 but he treats the city as a corporation and everybody’s a number. But he’s sitting on a billion-dollar fund that was given to the city to help 9/11 responders and he won’t release it unless Congress reopens the Sept. 11 fund because he’s a smart man. He doesn’t think a billion dollars is going to be enough to pay all the lawsuits.

But in the process of waiting for those lawsuits, he could at least be starting to hand out that money. A lot of these guys, they don’t want to be millionaires. If you give everybody a million dollars it’s not going to save their life.

So listen, my lawsuit, on paper. I lost half of my foot. I’ve had about 30 surgeries. They were ready to settle my lawsuit, the insurance company, until the city lawyers said no, we’re not paying anybody. Out of that billion-dollar fund they’ve paid one person. They paid that person $45,000 dollars because he broke his ankle, fell off a ladder.

Eventually I know we’ll win, I have faith in our judiciary system. But the fact that it’s six years later and people are getting sick and dying, it’s almost like mass murder and genocide is OK with us, because we attack other countries when they perform this on their own people. And last time I checked, there’s one God, and politicians and elected officials, they’re playing God with human life.

Their first priority when they’re elected into office is to serve and protect their constituents. That’s their job. I don’t see any serving and protecting.

CAP: You just haven’t had that experience?

JF: No.

CAP: Is there anything else you want to add?

JF: As a country, we took one on the chin. We got knocked down and we bounced back up on Sept. 11. We’re resilient and we move forward, and believe me I’m all for moving forward.

But in the process of moving forward we forgot what we left behind. And that’s about 40,000 people that are sick and dying. The heroes. And if you look up the word hero in the dictionary, it says “person noted for noble achievement.” That title doesn’t fit these brave souls—these men and women who are sick and dying and have been left stranded by their federal, state, and local governments.

The very people who we vote into office are not doing their jobs. And that’s just sad. And they say, well, you know, some of the things you say, they’re just un-American.

And I say to them, I volunteered to join the army at 17 years old. I had to get my parents’ signature. I served my country. I served my country again at 9/11. I founded two organizations, and I’m donating a body part. I don’t think there’s anybody more American than me.

I think I’m allowed and I’m entitled to say what’s on my mind what’s wrong. If you’re wrong you’re wrong, you should be allowed and not be afraid to say, that person’s wrong.

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