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The Gift of 9-11

On September 11, 2001, 29-year-old Tiffiny Gulla, a successful facilities manager in downtown Manhattan, stood on a corner facing the Twin Towers when events that would change the course of her life transpired. She shares with Traces her life’s journey over the past ten years: “This disease has put Him front and center.”

Tiffiny, can you relate your experience of that day?
I was standing on the corner of Liberty and Broadway. I remember suddenly running through a smoke cloud down the avenue toward the water to get away from the building collapsing, but I hadn’t even realized it was collapsing. We thought maybe the collapses we heard were bombs exploding. The combustion from the smoke and inertia was throwing people against the walls and mailboxes but, for some reason, I was able to keep running and, at a certain point, I was “transported” four blocks ahead. To this day, me and some of the others having this experience don’t know how we flew so far ahead in a few seconds. But we all remember the blue-white lights all around us, which many of us believe were guardian angels. But I arrived home scared and confused. It was years before I could watch the footage of that day.

Yet you found yourself back there only two days later…
Yes. Someone needed to take care of packaging up our out-of-town employees’ personal effects in our corporate apartments downtown in Battery Park—they had all fled their apartments. Since I had already witnessed the carnage I did not want to put anyone else through the trauma, so I volunteered to go back in to work on this. But, by the third day of the aftermath, I was waking up with hugely swollen hands. I was also bleeding from the nose, and had other symptoms of toxic mercury poisoning, like many others. We went immediately into treatment to sweat out the toxins. But some of my symptoms remained. Within ten days, I got the worst possible diagnosis: scleroderma, which is an over-production of collagen. This is a fatal autoimmune disease, with mortality usually within ten years. It causes a hardening of skin and organs—a scarring of tissues, noticeable the hands and face, but the internal damage is worse.

Why did you contract scleroderma and others there did not?
The melting down of all the PVC pipes, the shattering light bulbs, and other burning materials caused the metallic poisoning. And the treatment was really aggressive. Most people were able to sweat out the heavy metals from their systems. But in my case, my immune system shut down after the treatments, and the SCL-70 antibody the doctors found indicated scleroderma. Maybe it was the treatment, and/or maybe I have a genetic disposition... Whatever the scientific reasons, which are still a mystery, I know that God allowed me to have this for a reason—this awareness dawned on me within minutes of hearing my diagnosis. This is because of a path I had been on for some three years before the disaster. In 1998, I had begged Him to show Himself more in my life, and from that day He has been preparing me for this, my cross. I was on my way to a fashion show when I got the diagnosis. I remember that I went to the show anyway, on the arm of a friend. I think I must have immediately given everything into God’s hands in order to continue with my daily life as I did. I went on with great hope and promise, which came from Another.

Has it been difficult for your family and friends to accept?
My entire family is very close; my sister and brother were really sad and worried, but completely there for me from the moment I told them. My mom, who has been battling cancer for years, had a hard time for a long while, but now she is able to accept it. She was so used to enjoying all my successes and my energy and all I had been given. I tell her, and everyone, that if you are in a relationship with God, He will never ever let you down. Why get angry or be afraid when you can talk to God, and pray about it, and He always answers! This is the new gift of “seeing” that I have now. It has been an interesting ten years. I feel more myself; happier and more accepting... My heart has been opened! Every time I have gone to the doctor over this time it is something new—losing my fingertips or feeling the hardening of my left lung… I am not thinking about all this while it is happening. I did not even realize how changed I was physically until 2006 when I saw a picture of myself and I said, "Wow, I am deformed!" Many other patients I have met who have scleroderma seem to have completely given up hope; I have tried to be really positive with them.

You were so incredibly accomplished, having graduated number one from the music and dance school and carrying a dual Fine Arts and Science degree...
There was no reason why I should have been handed all the opportunities I received! God brought me to the best of success in New York. In my twenties, with my music composition/choreography and kinesiology degree, I was an Assistant to the House Composer at Carnegie Hall. I danced with professional choreographers in concerts at The Kennedy Center in DC and at Joyce Theater and other venues in NYC. I went on to design fashion accessories for a private women’s label. After that, I was working in “character licensing”— including for Lucas Films and Star Wars. I had a massage therapy business on the side, a wonderful boyfriend, and great family and friends, as well as contacts all over NY and the world. In 1998, a work colleague invited me to the 42nd St. Church’s “praise and worship” meeting, where I was struck by the personal relationship that these people seemed to have with Jesus Himself. I had always known and loved the Father, but this deeply human element really moved me.

How did you move from music and fashion and design work to business, and why?
My life, although successful, was chaotic. My mother, in the throes of her second bout with cancer, had just moved in with me—with my brother, so we could take care of her. I had a greater desire for meaning and was ready for any change. So, on the suggestion of a friend, I went on an interview for this job with royal blue financial corp. (now Fidessa) in 2000. I was hired not necessarily for my resume but, oddly enough, because I was on an amateur national golf circuit, and my would-be boss loved golf! I thought, “Maybe Providence is at work here!” As a facilities manager, I did everything from running around with a real estate broker, dealing with lawyers, to finally renting the office space; I would then design, manage, and upkeep the offices and data centers. Two months into the job, I discovered that there was a chapel 50 feet from my office, Our Lady of the Rosary, the Mother Seton shrine, and I made that my second home. This was an answer to my prayer, which by then was becoming, “Lord, I want You to be my full focus.” Because I was working there, I was downtown on September 11th. And that brought this disease, which has put Him front and center, as I had asked. It was almost a relief to know I would have to depend on Him now.

How are you handling the progression of this disease?
God had to take each one of my gifts and talents away one by one for me to see what the real Gift is. My life is no longer who I know, all my contacts, what I can do—because I can no longer do what I was able to do physically. Now my life is just Him, on whom I fully depend. I still work in finance, designing office spaces. I can’t play music anymore but I still have my voice and I am composing music with the help of friends. I have to give everything to everyone because I am so dependent. But if I had not already been in a relationship of dependence on Christ, accepting so much help would be unbearable. Instead, my friends are signs of Him for me. I was even given a phenomenal doctor and friend, from the Memores Domini, named Franz. He has saved me physically more than once—and has helped me emotionally and spiritually as well.

The pain and loss have not distracted you from your path…
I know a lot of pain, and getting through the day is truly trying, but I cannot emphasize enough that God is there every minute. How can I not accept all this as a gift?!

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