September 10, 2021

Remarks by Dr. Collins at the Kennedy Center Concert of Remembrance

On Friday, September 10, 2021, the Kennedy Center held a commemorative Concert of Remembrance to mark the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, reflect on the ongoing loss from COVID-19, and honor those on the front lines through the pandemic. The evening included performances by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, the National Symphony Orchestra led by Gianandrea Noseda, the President’s Own United States Marine Band, and remarks by David Rubenstein, General Colin Powell, Shirley Riggsbee, and Dr. Francis Collins.

Remarks by NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

Good evening. I’m Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health – which we like to call the “National Institutes of Hope”.

And yes, it is hope in the face of tragedy and loss that we are here to contemplate on this somber September evening.

I am glad that music is such a prominent part of this evening’s remembrance.  Music has a way of bringing us together -- to mourn, to celebrate, to care for each other.  Music also has the power to heal, as NIH is currently exploring with our wonderful partners Renee Fleming, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Kennedy Center.  We can all agree that our nation needs healing.

Tonight, we honor the heroic and noble character of those who faced danger and did not flinch, even in the face of the sternest tests to their spirits: the first responders of 9/11.  And we also honor those who are following that same courageous tradition today … the frontline healthcare providers and dedicated scientists battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both 9/11 and the COVID pandemic are tragic events that upended our day-to-day lives and our shared certainties.  Whether or not we personally knew people who lost their lives, we have shared in a collective grief, an ongoing state of mourning.

We also share in gratitude for those who bravely rushed in to help, where most of us would have feared to tread.

True, all these first responders were doing what they were trained to do.  But in practice, few could have foreseen the scope, duration, and cost of their brave actions.  Yet I have no doubt they would do it again, if asked.

It’s who they are – and why they chose their professions in the first place, and then they ran toward the danger when they were called to do so.

Every day they have lived out the exhortation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that’s engraved in stone just a mile from here, and a copy of which hangs on my wall: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”.  The measure of these heroes has been taken.

On 9/11, almost three thousand lost their lives in the twin towers, the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania, as a result of the worst terrorist attack in history.  Hundreds of first responders tragically also died that terrible morning, even as they sought to save others.  And the price paid by the heroes did not end there — many of those who survived continue to make sacrifices to this day:

Careers were abruptly ended by immediate injuries.  Others were soon ended by the long-term health consequences of the “toxic stew of dust and fumes” they inhaled in their rescue and recovery efforts.

We are still learning about the toll taken by “WTC cough” and related chronic respiratory and digestive issues … by PTSD, with resultant depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders … by cancers that may have developed from toxic exposure.

Twenty years later, the first responders around us now are the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic: the front-line healthcare providers and the scientists working flat out to develop vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic tests.

They have dedicated themselves to finding urgent solutions at the expense of their own health, sacrificing rest, food, and time with loved ones.

They have manned research labs, emergency rooms, hospital wards, and ICUs under terribly difficult circumstances; some have even been called to sit at the bedside of dying patients, filling the role of family members who could not be there because of the risk of infection.

And like the 9/11 responders, their commitment has continued well beyond what we thought was the end of the crisis . . . as now they struggle to keep up their spirits, and their energy, in the face of a towering COVID delta wave.

Yet, like Paul writing to the Corinthians, they – and we -- are determined to be resilient: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

As a physician, a scientist, and Director of NIH, I promise that we shall continue to invest in the very best science, along with the full power of our minds, spirits, and energies, to do everything possible to end this pandemic, and improve the lives and health of all the peoples of the world.

In words emblazoned on the walls of this very Center, President John F. Kennedy observed in 1962: “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

Tonight, we recognize and give thanks for the human spirit contributed by each and every hero of 9/11 and COVID-19.  May God bless them all.