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Although some thought had been given to the prospect of using an airplane as a guided missile almost from the time of the first flight at Kitty Hawk, little thought had been given to the potential magnitude and consequences of an airline missile striking the World Trade Center as occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, as director of the dental ethics program at Columbia University School of Dental and Oral Surgery, I was in Hammer Health Sciences Center on the third floor heading a team of volunteers from the New York Academy of Dentistry who were donating their time and expertise as facilitators in the ethics seminars for the dental students.

The volunteers were among the many academy fellows trained by the American College of Dentists who have given their time and expertise during the past 10 years at three area dental schools. When the seminar discussion was interrupted to inform me a plane had struck the World Trade Center, my first thought was of a small aircraft in a tragic accident, so we continued. But with more interruptions, the unimaginable became evident, and we were left to wonder: “What could we do?”

Two days later while delivering dental records and forensic material of a victim, patient, and friend to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, I volunteered to help the dental forensic team, a group comprised of mostly volunteer dentists who work with the medical examiner in the identification of remains. Dental records—not DNA as might be commonly perceived—have proven to be the quickest, most accurate means of identification in human-made catastrophes and natural disasters. Information from a patient’s dental records (antemortem) and forensic material (postmortem) is put into a computer software program and searched to achieve matches. The volunteers at the medical examiner’s officer analyzed data for about 2,500 WTC cases.

During the WTC disaster, the volunteers were supervised by 21 tour commanders (volunteers, but with more advanced special forensic training or extensive forensic experience). All worked under Dr. Jeffrey Burkes, the chief forensic dental consultant for the city’s medical examiner. Additional support came from Public Health Services and the Disaster Mortuary Operational Team (DMORT), a federal agency composed of dentists, morticians, and computer specialists deployed from all over the country who mobilize immediately in the event of a disaster.

Rapid and accurate identification of a deceased person can help to bring closure for the family and friends of victims. But it is unfortunate that many professionals and the public remain unaware of the importance of maintaining complete and current dental records that could be essential for identification in a catastrophic event. DNA results from the WTC did not become available for about seven months, although this modality may become more beneficial over the next few months.

Now, a year later, as I solicit volunteers to teach the ethics course, which is about to begin again, I find myself reflecting on my experiences over the last year working in various capacities with the numerous unsung heroes who contributed so much in response to the events of Sept. 11. Many dentists made sacrifices at the expense of other obligations and the needs of their own families in order to benefit others unknown to them—and I wonder, “Why did they do it?”

I do not expect to answer this question, for I know it is complex. When people ask me why I have volunteered to teach for over 30 years, I generally avoid confronting this conundrum by claiming it is due to some brain lesion. But perhaps it is less important to understand the “why” and concentrate instead on appreciating how dependent we are on those who so willingly volunteer to make the sacrifices needed to achieve some basic values that benefit us all.

What motivated the tour commanders of the dental I.D. team, the hundreds of dental volunteers from the greater New York area, and the members of DMORT to be part of the Herculean effort that was responsible for the identification of the majority of the remains recovered from the World Trade Center disaster? Despite volunteering more than 25,000 hours, little recognition has been extended to the dental volunteers for their meticulous work and the help they have given in aiding the families of the victims and heroes to find comfort and closure.

But in March, the New York Academy of Dentistry recognized the need to thank the volunteers for their humanitarian efforts in helping the families and friends of the victims and our larger grieving society. The Academy Board of Directors bestowed its coveted Humanitarian Award to Dr. Burkes; to the 21 tour commanders; to one DMORT member; and to the 17 fellows of the New York Academy of Dentistry who volunteered for this very compassionate endeavor.

While those honored would be the first to protest that no expression of thanks was expected or sought, it is as impossible to describe the appreciation expressed by the recipients for this award as it is to account for why people volunteer. I suspect it is another one of those brain lesion things. Many of the award recipients also are volunteer facilitators for the ethics program. Perhaps it’s not a brain lesion, but the many common threads of our values that bond us together. However, it is important for all of us to remain cognizant of the importance of volunteerism, self-sacrifice, and heroics, for it is an expression of some of the core values of society that we hold so dear and must preserve. It is essential that we not allow “thank you” to be one of the things not thought of.

Dr. Robert Dwight Miner is director of the dental ethics program and associate clinical professor of dentistry in the department of prosthodontics at the Columbia University School of Dental and Oral Surgery.

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