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Last Updated

10 Nov 2002

Source: The Free-Lance Star (Virginia), November 10, 2002.


Anthrax survivor's life continues to be very different a year later

By KARI PUGH, The Free Lance-Star

LEROY RICHMOND (case 14) is painting the walls of his North Stafford living room a lush, dark green.

It's a project he thinks he might never finish.

"I've got it so I can work for about 20 minutes now," Richmond said on a recent morning, his sweatpants splattered with paint. "Then I have to take a 15- or 20-minute nap."

The former postal worker used to get up long before dawn each day, leaving his home off Garrisonville Road by 3 a.m. for the trek to the Brentwood Post Office in Washington.

Every afternoon, he'd be home in time to greet his 7-year-old son, Quentin, at the school bus stop.

But all that changed in October 2001, when the 58-year-old became the third American to be diagnosed with inhalation anthrax, a form of the disease thought to be a death sentence.

For 27 days, doctors at Inova Fairfax Hospital treated him with intravenous antibiotics, gave him blood plasma transfusions and drained his lungs of pints and pints of toxic fluid.

In that time, 15 more people contracted the skin or inhalation forms of anthrax. Five died. Richmond is one of just four inhalation anthrax victims to survive.

Two coworkers Richmond knew well, Joseph Curseen Jr. (case 16) and Thomas Morris Jr. (case 15), both died of anthrax while he was hospitalized.

His friend Joe led prayer sessions during morning breaks at the post office and Richmond was a frequent participant. Morris, known as "Mo" to his friends, liked to play cards and Richmond was no stranger to his poker table.

Richmond and fellow coworkers at Brentwood are rallying to have the post office named for the two men -- and they have set up a scholarship fund for their children.

"They were both hard workers and good men," Richmond said. "This could have happened to any of us."

On the one-year anniversary of his release from the hospital, blood tests showed Richmond's body was finally free of all anthrax bacteria.

But his battle with the disease continues.

Richmond, like other anthrax survivors, suffers short-term memory loss and tires easily. He's gone from a man who needed little sleep to one who has to nap all the time.

He also keeps a daybook at hand to write down anything he wants to remember.

"Physically, I feel I've been robbed of a quality of life," he said.

But he's come a long way since last year, when he lay awake in his hospital bed for six days straight, unsure if he'd ever go home.

It was so hard to breathe, he was afraid to drift off, afraid he'd take his last breath in his sleep.

"I often ask myself, 'Why did I live?'" Richmond said. "It's only through the grace of God."

His neurologist likened his ordeal to surviving the trauma of war --and told him to expect flashbacks.

"I never thought I'd be a casualty in the war on terrorism," Richmond said.

He believes he contracted anthrax the week of Oct. 11, 2001.

The 34-year veteran of the U.S. Postal Service processed Express Mail at a facility in Baltimore, then delivered it each day to the Brentwood Post Office for circulation.

There was no work in Baltimore one day, so Richmond volunteered to do some cleaning at Brentwood. He moved boxes in the room where White House and Senate mail is processed.

Other workers were cleaning a nearby machine with an air hose. It was the same machine that had stamped an anthrax-spiked letter to Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle.

The hose sent a poof of dust into the air.

When he woke up one morning the following week, Richmond felt like he was coming down with a cold.

He took some aspirin and left for work, feeling tired and weak.

As the week wore on, he felt worse, but continued the early-morning commute to the post office each day.

That Friday, he drove to work barely able to breathe. He knew something was seriously wrong, but thought maybe he had a bad case of the flu.

He went to Kaiser Permanente in Woodbridge, where a blood test confirmed the worst -- inhalation anthrax.

The next few weeks were a blur of illness and miserable medical procedures. None of his doctors had ever seen anthrax, much less knew how to treat it.

They largely made up the treatment as they went along, fighting each complication as it arose. In the end, their work would set new guidelines for dealing with the rare and mysterious disease.

"If nothing else, we'll be remembered in the medical books," he said. "The medical profession will study us for the rest of our lives."

After he was sent home from the hospital, Richmond was taking 11 pills a day to combat the aftermath of anthrax and made weekly visits to Inova Fairfax Hospital for checkups. Now he takes only one pill a day and goes to see his doctor twice a month.

Still, the future is uncertain.

Doctors have told him he may have lingering pulmonary and blood problems. And leftover toxins from the anthrax have already settled into his brain.

No doctor can tell him whether he'll fully recover, whether he'll ever be the same man he was before.

He doubts he'll ever be able to return to work, a routine he still misses a year later.

"I'm just trying to get better," he said. "It's been a tremendous lifestyle change and I'm still trying to get used to it. But I'm enjoying life more than ever. I can't worry about the past or the future. I'm too happy to be alive."