Between patient visits at a hospital in Brescia, in his native Italy, Dr. Roberto Lucchini caught glimpses on TV of the aftermath of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. The occupational medicine specialist fixated on the plume of toxic dust that descended as a ghostly layer of ash and contained, he knew, a mix of cement particles, asbestos, heavy metals and chemical pollutants that could pose catastrophic health consequences for everyone in its wake.
By 2012, Lucchini understood the dangers intimately as he began working directly with first responders as director of the WTC Health Program Data Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
“These health issues resemble what is seen among veterans who were exposed to chemicals and psychological trauma in war zones,” he says of the many who reported respiratory ailments, cancers, persistent mental health challenges and cognitive losses.
On Lucchini’s watch, the monitoring and treatment of recovery workers who labored for months on the scene — often without benefit of the personal protective gear now recognized as critically necessary — led to studies that have since informed operations at disaster sites such as the 2019 fire at Notre Dame cathedral and the 2021 South Florida condominium building collapse.
At FIU, Lucchini continues to prioritize the aging population of 100,000+ remaining heroes and other survivors with research into how exposures have impacted their later years. And as many retire to Florida, he has hopes of establishing a source for their specialized care — a concern that emanates from more than simply a doctor’s call to duty.
“I became emotionally invested because you get in touch with people and listen to their stories.”