Stories of Hope: From High School Student to 9/11 Health Advocate

A young woman speaks into a group of microphones from assorted media channels during a press conference.

On September 11, 2001, Lila Nordstrom was a 17-year-old student at Stuyvesant High School just three blocks north of the World Trade Center. For tens of thousands of students downtown alongside Nordstrom, the life-altering terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers would soon eclipse the normal school day. She and her classmates evacuated the building, but only three weeks later, returned to school “before it was safe to breathe” the air surrounding the World Trade Center.

A few years later, as Nordstrom was preparing to graduate college, she began to hear about her classmates becoming sick from the toxins emitted from the destruction at the World Trade Center, “and that was on top of the trauma of having run for our lives on 9/11 itself.” Frustrated and scared, especially with the realization that she was about to lose her health insurance, Nordstrom resolved to take action on behalf of herself and others who were suffering from the lingering physical and mental health effects of 9/11.

“I did what my mother has always trained me to do in these situations when I’m feeling frustrated and helpless, and I got in touch with my elected officials,” says Nordstrom. “I wrote a letter, I sent it to some friends first and a bunch of us wound up on the news. We got meetings with local elected officials, we met the other community advocates working on the issue, and my life as an advocate began.”

Nordstrom founded StuyHealth, “an advocacy group for young adults impacted by the events of 9/11 and the World Trade Center clean-up.” Today, the organization advocates for the “kids of 9/11” and ensures that they have the resources they need to manage their illnesses.

In her role as 9/11 health advocate, Nordstrom has played a key role in policy decisions surrounding 9/11 health coverage and benefits for survivors like herself, first responders, downtown residents, and more. In June 2019, she testified at the congressional hearing to renew the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund alongside former host of The Daily Show and 9/11 Memorial & Museum Trustee Jon Stewart and 9/11 first responder Detective Luis Alvarez. Following the hearing, Congress reauthorized the Victim Compensation Fund through 2092.

“People always ask me how I can stand to tell the story of 9/11 over and over, and the secret is that while it can be really hard to talk about 9/11 in my regular life, it’s surprisingly easy to do it in front of an elected official when telling the story is going to help people,” says Nordstrom.

For Nordstrom, the work is far from over. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people suffering from 9/11-related illnesses have been more susceptible to contracting the virus. Through her work, Nordstrom continues to make people like herself—young adults who were students downtown on 9/11—more aware of their resources in fighting illness. “Our story isn’t as well known as the responder story,” says Nordstrom, “and it doesn’t get told in media as often, so a lot of us are eligible for federal health services but don’t know it.”

In addition to advocating on behalf of her peers, Nordstrom is also focused on protecting future generations from similar experiences. “I was a kid on 9/11, but I’ve tried to use my adulthood to make sure the other children of 9/11 get the help they deserve and, most importantly, to make sure this doesn’t happen to other kids in the future.”

By 9/11 Memorial Staff

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