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Last Updated

08 Nov 2002

Source: Washington Post, December 29, 2001.

Anthrax Survivor Delivers His Thanks

Postal Worker Visits Virginia Blood Drive

By Leef Smith, Washington Post Staff Writer

Still weak from a life-threatening battle with anthrax, Brentwood postal worker Leroy Richmond (case 14) stopped in at a blood drive yesterday in Centreville to praise the anonymous donors who helped save his life and urge that his colleagues allow themselves to be vaccinated against the deadly infection.

Federal health officials are making available a vaccine to supplement antibiotics for those who may have been exposed. But so far few postal workers have taken the vaccine, saying they are concerned about possible side effects and expressing uncertainty over whether the vaccine would be helpful.

Yesterday, chatting with a dozen donors at the Inova CentreMed Donor Center, Richmond said he also was shocked to learn that many of his colleagues stopped taking their antibiotics because of side effects. Richmond said that if employees intend to make a career at the U.S. Postal Service, they need to face up to the possibility that more anthrax could wind up in the mail and take as many precautions -- including an experimental vaccine -- as they can.

"If you work in the post office and the vaccine is available to you, even with the possible side effects, I'd choose vaccine and life," Richmond said. As a result of his inhalation anthrax infection, Richmond said, doctors have told him that he has built up so many antibodies that he would not need to be vaccinated.

The debate over how to protect against another anthrax outbreak has been marked by confusion and frustration. Federal health officials have declined to offer specific recommendations to those at risk, and D.C. officials have recommended against the experimental vaccine.

Richmond, 57, spent nearly a month in intensive care at Inova Fairfax Hospital after being diagnosed with the infection in October. During that time, physicians pumped him full of antibiotics and used plasmapheresis, a blood-cleansing procedure similar to dialysis in which the plasma is removed and replaced with a donor's, to eliminate toxins.

Richmond said doctors have told him that it could be years before he fully recovers and that a relapse is possible.

Still, despite weight loss, sleeplessness and continued pain in his chest, Richmond said he's "feeling better than I've felt in a long time." Yesterday, the Stafford resident was eager to tell his story of recovery to blood donors and encourage their continued participation in a program he said helped save his life.

"It's hard to say what saved me, but one of the things was plasmapheresis," Richmond told the men and women giving blood. "Honestly, without it, I would be dead."

Richmond said he underwent eight sessions of the plasma therapy to counteract the deadly anthrax-related toxins. Since his release from the hospital, he has been going to the doctor every week for blood tests. That will eventually be scaled back to once a month.

Richmond said doctors have told him that they want to use his blood as well as the blood of other anthrax victims for research developing a new vaccine.

Richmond, who worked in the Express Mail section of the Brentwood Road NE processing facility, said he would return to work when the doctors give him the go-ahead. Whether he'll return to Brentwood is uncertain, he said, adding that his wife has reservations.

In the meantime, Richmond said he'll do his part to help the Inova Blood Donor Service with recruitment.

"When donors meet a patient face-to-face, it may make them come back sooner and tell their friends to do the same," said Linda Wilson, manager of donor center recruitment for Inova Blood Donor Services. "We want them to have a sense of purpose. In this man's life, it has made a great difference."

Richmond could only agree.

"I'd like to thank you," Richmond told the small room of donors, most of whom lay on tables giving blood. "It's thanks to you that I live."

"I was a victim of circumstance," Richmond said later. "I pray no other American citizen goes through it."