ANTHRAX BOUT LEAVES GRIM LEGACY FOR SURVIVORS



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Last Updated

14 Oct 2002

Source: The Times, Trenton (New Jersey), October 14, 2002.

Anthrax bout leaves grim legacy for survivors

By JOEL BEWLEY

A few weeks after she left the hospital, Norma Wallace (case 11) was jarred back to reality by the motorist behind her bearing down on his car horn.

Looking up to see the light was green, she drove through the intersection. She recalled stopping at the light moments earlier, but nothing afterward.

"I have no idea how long I was there," Wallace said. "The light might have changed a couple of times. I just blanked out."

In the 12 months since she almost died from inhalational anthrax, Wallace has had several similar episodes, though they have become less frequent. Her energy level remains low and her memory falters from time to time.

"I know I will return to normal," said the 57-year-old Willingboro resident. "I'm just not sure how long it will take."

Wallace is on disability leave from her job as a mail processor at the Trenton area's main post office in Hamilton.

She is one of six people who recovered from the more severe inhalational form of the disease. Five others died and almost a dozen people were diagnosed with skin anthrax.

Not all of the almost two dozen cases along the East Coast have been connected to the four letters containing anthrax that went through the Trenton regional post office. But for those in this area who became sick - including five Trenton postal workers and a Hamilton bookkeeper - there is no question the letters are the cause.

Unlike Wallace, Jyotsna Patel (case 13) is not so certain she will recover, at least not psychologically.

She is troubled that investigators have no real leads to pursue. The fact that the culprit is still at large is reflected in the recurring theme of her terrifying dreams.

In them, a group of people come to her house to kill her. They start by cutting off her hands. That's as far as they get before she wakes up screaming.

She suffers from anxiety, severe at times. She will not touch the mail that comes to their West Windsor home. Unlike Wallace, she is certain she will never return to work for the U.S. Postal Service once she becomes healthy again.

"I am very, very afraid," the 43-year former mail processor said.

Along with the anguish comes fatigue. Going up or down the stairs wears her out. It was never that way before.

"The machines we used to sort the mail require two people to operate them," she said. "It was hard for me to find someone to partner with me because I worked so fast. I was so active before you would not believe it. Now I don't feel like doing anything."

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Patel has help from her sisters, husband and teenage daughters.

"She is meditating and praying, but it has not helped her too much," said her husband, Ramesh. "Her life has really been changed. All of our lives have been changed."

Wallace (case 11), who lives alone, spends her days reading, sewing and visiting members of her church who live in nursing homes. She walks for 30 minutes each day. It has been financially difficult for her since she left work. Small repairs that need doing around the house have not been made. A new set of tires on her car will have to wait.

She plans to return to Rutgers University and finish courses needed for a bachelor's degree. The thing that seems to trouble her most is the loss of short-term memory.

The state Department of Labor asked her to undergo a psychological evaluation, which determined she suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder.

A therapist she is seeing has helped some.

"I still have anxiety that seems to come from nowhere," she said.

Wallace has a recurring dream that she is in a desolate area with no other people. It disturbs her and she usually awakens, walks through her Willingboro home for a few minutes then returns to bed.

It is an unexplained scene that comes to her when she is awake that is more disturbing, she said.

"I'm in this big place and there is a faceless figure in there with me. It is a female and she is standing near me. Beyond that, I can't really explain it. It sort of comes and then it is gone."

Wallace and Patel are the only local victims who contracted inhalational anthrax. It is thought that air hoses used to blow dust and debris from the sorters spread the anthrax spores throughout their areas.

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Mail carrier Terri Heller (case 4) was the first to be sickened with skin anthrax. Her doctors initially thought a scab on her wrist was from a spider bite. The scar from the skin graft is a visible reminder, but she doesn't give it much thought.

She was back on the job about six weeks after she was diagnosed, returning to her route in the West Trenton section of Ewing. It was never determined exactly how she was exposed. Investigators said it is likely that mail she delivered was placed in a bin contaminated by the anthrax letters.

"By the end of the day I can barely stay awake, but I just deal with it," Heller said. "I don't dwell on it. It could happen again, but I look at it as a one-time thing, because if I didn't, I would turn into a basket case."

Patrick O'Donnell (case 12), a 36-year-old Pennsylvania man, thought he too had a spider bite. As his neck continued to balloon, he thought we was going to die.

He plans to return to work soon as a letter sorter but wants to work at a facility closer to his home.

"So much stuff goes through my head nowadays," he said. "I thank God every day I'm alive. I do something every day. I just don't lay around."

It seems the role of faith has been an important one for most of the victims.

"God brought me back from the brink of death," Wallace said. "I think there is a plan working here."

Unlike some of the others, she no longer feels anger toward the culprit.

"Life is precious. I don't want to waste energy thinking about the person who did this. The individuals involved might not be brought to justice here on Earth but they will have to stand before their creator and give an account of what they have done."

NOTE: Staff writer Kevin Shea contributed to this report.