By 10 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, it was apparent to most people across the country, and the world for that matter, that America was at war.
For those who responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., thoughts of a potential war were placed on the backburner as thousands of first responders raced to find and help survivors.
The same can be said for the many doctors who worked on those wounded survivors throughout that day.
Indianola native Dr. Ray Matthews was one of those doctors that day in New York.
He was not working in NYC. He happened to be there at a medical convention, which was taking place in a hotel at the exact same time the twin towers were hit.
The city needed every available medical professional to respond to the massive carnage from the WTC site, and state officials found a room full of willing volunteers that morning.
“State troopers rush in, and they say we needed to go immediately with them, go to our rooms, pack a bag and be prepared to go,” Matthews told The Enterprise-Tocsin during a recent interview for this special edition. “They took us to Ellis Island.”
Ellis Island was the site of a walking wounded clinic that had been set up for victims who were not seriously injured. Those patients were taken to area hospitals.
“Everybody went,” Matthews said. “We felt we needed to do our (patriotic) duties. We didn’t think about personal safety. The thing was, how could we help?”
In the backdrop of this triage unit, the New York skyline was filled with smoke, dust and fire and was missing its two most iconic buildings.
“F-16s were flying overhead,” Matthews said. “It was a chaotic scene, seeing the World Trade Center towers on fire.”
Traffic at the makeshift clinic was steady throughout the day, Matthews said. They arrived shortly after 9 a.m. and did not leave until about 5 p.m. that afternoon.
“I took care of two secret service agents who had been in the World Trade Center when they basically collapsed,” Matthews said. “They had minor injuries and bruises and little contusions, concussions and minor scrapes.”
Matthews had been trained early on in his professional career to remain hyper focused while working on patients. This day was no exception, and while military jets continued to fly low overhead, and not knowing at all whether more attacks were imminent, Matthews and the other doctors kept working.
“I’m trained to deal with tragedies and emergencies, and it took me a couple of days to reflect on that and say, ‘What just happened? or why did this happen?’” Matthews said.
While many of his patients that day only came to him with minor physical injuries, Matthews said many would have to deal with the mental toll from the morning’s events for years to come.
“They obviously were in a daze, and they obviously were mentally damaged,” he said. “No one suspected this in the first instance, and secondly, to see that devastation would be something that would stay with you for the rest of your life… People’s lives were changed forever. People went to work on a regular work morning, and who would expect something like this to happen?”
Matthews ended up getting stuck in New York City for about five days, due to the fact that air travel was suspended nationwide in the days following the attacks.
He would go on to have a successful career in medicine, including his stint as a trauma surgeon and professor of medicine at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Three years ago, nearly on the anniversary of 9/11, Matthews returned to New York City to address the United Nations about his research with vitamin D.
Ironically, the two secret service agents he had worked on in New York on 9/11 had been assigned to the U.N. at that time.
That, and just the memories of the carnage that day, brought back a lot of emotions ahead of that 2018 speech.
“Like most veterans of war, when you go back to the place where something traumatic like that happened, your mind goes back to that, so it’s kind of a melancholy feeling,” he said. “You’re remembering back to that day, and you’re in a melancholy mood.”
Today, Matthews continues to raise awareness for vitamin D, as America and the world confronts another crisis in COVID-19.
“I think we’re kind of in a similar situation now where we need to work together to defeat this coronavirus,” Matthews said. “We did it during World War II, we did it during 9/11, and I think this is a time when all Americans need to come together and figure out how we move forward and eradicate this virus.”
Matthews is now retired from Morehouse, but his dedication to medicine and advocating for people’s health has never wavered
Healing is his number one priority now, and it was his mission on the morning of 9/11.