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Last Updated

18 Nov 2002

Source: New Haven Register, November 17, 2002.

Anthrax mystery still high priority

One year ago today, Dr. Lydia Barakat, infectious disease specialist at Griffin Hospital in Derby, saw something under her microscope that she had previously seen only in medical books — inhalation anthrax.

"I’d never seen anything like this before," Barakat said last week. "It looked just like what was described in books. It was amazing."

Four days later the patient, Ottilie Lundgren (case 23) of Oxford, became the fifth — and last — person to die of the deadly disease during a short-lived reign of terror last fall.

The 94-year-old widow’s death marked the beginning of the end of a two-month period when people feared opening their mail.

Law enforcement officials believe Lundgren contracted anthrax through cross-contaminated mail. The FBI has two squads still working to track down the person who laced the nation’s mail with anthrax spores last fall.

"We’re still actively pursuing this case and it’s still a high priority," said Washington, D.C., FBI field office spokeswoman Debbie Weierman.

The FBI has said it is investigating about 30 people, including bio-warfare expert Dr. Stephen J. Hatfill, who has said he is innocent.

The case still haunts Lundgren’s relatives, who say they want to put the incident behind them.

"It’s been a year already and we want to try to forget," said Emma Wilke of Waterbury, referring to the media attention that surrounded her sister-in-law’s death.

Shirley Davis of Woodbury, Lundgren’s niece, who looked after her aunt in her later years, said the public nature of Lundgren’s death has been troubling.

"I don’t know what I can say. It was the most tragic way to lose someone," said Davis, choking back tears. Davis said two other relatives have died in the past year.

"You never know what’s going to happen. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in death," she said. "If I could start talking I would only start crying."

Lois Dorrian of Canterbury, Lundgren’s other surviving niece, said the media attention is the last thing her aunt would have wanted.

"I can just visualize her looking down from heaven and shaking her head. She never wanted any attention, she just wanted to be a quiet, unassuming person," said Dorrian.

Lundgren grew up in Waterbury before she married the late Carl Lundgren, an Ansonia attorney who she met when she worked as a legal secretary for former Gov. Ray Baldwin. After her husband’s death in 1977, Lundgren continued to live alone in their Edgewood Road house.

Dorrian said the media focus on the anthrax scare made her aunt’s death impersonal and that made it more difficult for her family. She said her aunt’s life story became lost in the glare of the media spotlight.

"She was a wonderful person," said Dorrian. "She was a kindly person who helped everybody whenever she could. She worried about the world. She didn’t want to bother anybody, she just wanted to go her way."

The Lundgrens, who had no children, lived in a pristine neighborhood surrounded by rolling hills, woods and farmland.

Dorrian said that at first the family did not think Lundgren’s illness was serious.

"We thought she was sick, that she had pneumonia. We never, ever expected it was anthrax. It was sickening, it was horrible," she said.

Lundgren was admitted to Griffin Hospital Nov. 16, 2001, after complaining of flu-like symptoms. Hospital staff found she was dehydrated and had a fever.

A hospital official said a patient in this condition would normally be sent home, but staff decided to admit her because of her age and because she lived alone.

Her condition steadily declined, and the hospital started a battery of tests.

On Nov. 17, Barakat became the first person to realize the anthrax scare had come to Connecticut.

"Everyone was fearful after this that there could be more cases, but luckily it was the only one," Barakat said. "I felt so badly for the patient."

Three days later, the state Department of Health confirmed what Barakat had seen under her microscope. Despite orders from the FBI to wait for test results from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Griffin Hospital officials decided to tell the staff about the anthrax case.

"We had an obligation to the staff, the patient and the community to let people know that we had a case of inhalation anthrax and it couldn’t be passed person to person," said Griffin Vice President William Powanda.

Powanda said Lundgren was put on an antibiotic protocol of Cipro, Vancomycin and Ampicillin, but her lungs filled with fluid and her condition worsened. She was transferred to the critical care unit.

Early on the morning of Nov. 21, the CDC’s tests came back positive for anthrax. At 10:30 a.m., Lundgren died.

Lundgren’s death catapulted the small suburban hospital and her rural hometown of Oxford into the national spotlight. Health experts took samples from Lundgren’s home and spots she frequented throughout town, looking for anthrax spores.

Media from as close as New Haven to as far as Japan parked outside the hospital’s entrance.

While Lundgren was hospitalized, the staff tightened security in fear that tabloid photographers would try to get into her room and take a picture of her while she was on her deathbed.

Oxford has returned to normal since Lundgren’s death. On June 14, her home was sold to David and Evelyn Nash for $250,000.

First Selectwoman Kathy Johnson said the town’s recuperation is a metaphor for humans’ ability to conquer adversity.

"Oxford has made itself right again," Johnson said. "People are going about their normal routines."

She said, however, that town residents will probably never forget the incident, and may feel vulnerable from time to time.

Seymour First Selectman Scott Barton agreed with Johnson, adding that a renewed faith in government has been matched by a growing fear of the unknown."There’s a hidden (knowledge) in all of us that any type of bioterrorism activities could take place," Barton said.

Soon after Lundgren’s death, anthrax spores were discovered on a mailbox on Great Hill Road in neighboring Seymour.

The box was along the same postal route as Lundgren’s, and investigators believe that spores on the letter that infected Lundgren had contaminated mail left inside the mailbox.

Frank Marcucio, executive director of Seymour Ambulance Association, responded to the case on Great Hill Road and said the episode taught the town a valuable lesson in emergency preparedness.

"One thing we learned was that communication between the state health department and the town was terrible," he said.

Marcucio said he and Barton often heard updates on television before hearing anything from state or federal officials who were stationed in town.

The state has worked since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to better coordinate federal, state and local agencies to respond to public health threats, according to state Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Joxel Garcia.

On Nov. 18, Garcia plans to meet with all state health directors to finalize plans for setting up smallpox immunization clinics in the event they are required.

Garcia said he is not aware of any immediate threat, and that the meeting is simply part of an ongoing effort.

Garcia said the state is working closely with community health centers, urgent care centers and private clinics that could act as the state’s safety net in responding to any new bioterrorism threat.

"If people go in with symptoms, we’ll have enough of these in the state that we can respond immediately," Garcia said.

Garcia said health officials need to research anthrax and other agents of bioterrorism more thoroughly, but admitted that testing such agents could prove complicated.

"From an ethics perspective, you won’t ask people to go to studies to find out what the effect on humans is," Garcia said.