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Last Updated

21 Nov 2002

Source: Hartford Courant, November 21, 2002.

A year without Ottilie

Last year's bioterrorism attacks continue to leave their mark on those the anthrax outbreak left behind, and those still recovering.

By MARYELLEN FILLO, Courant Staff Writer

For Shirley Davis, it has been an overwhelming and difficult year since her beloved aunt, Ottilie Lundgren (case 23), became the state's first - and the nation's last - victim of last year's inhalation anthrax outbreak.

Still tearing up as she reminisces about the Nov. 21, 2001, death of her 94-year-old aunt to the bioterrorism assault that gripped the nation, Davis has endured a lot since. She suffered a stress-related stroke and buried her sister. She has dealt with a family falling-out over the division of her aunt's belongings and the emotionally difficult sale of the elderly woman's Oxford home.

A few weeks ago, she finally arranged a quiet and respectful burial for her aunt's cremated remains. Davis, her aunt's primary caregiver and closest relative, now meets with a counselor in search of closure to a year marked with emotional havoc and regularly turns to her minister for solace.

Her physical and emotional susceptibilities are not uncommon to those who have lost a family member or who have survived contact with the lethal anthrax strain.

"It is a difficult transition for these people because unlike those who lost family members or survived the Sept. 11 tragedy, there is not the same level of recognition, no reparations or continued national support," said Robert Butterworth, a California-based trauma psychologist. "The important thing is not to stay isolated or alone, and to work at getting back to a normal routine."

Easier said than done to some, like Davis, 72, of Woodbury, who was unwittingly thrust into the national spotlight and labors to return to a life that is "normal."

"I am thankful for everyone who tried to help my aunt, and who helped me, but I am tired and just want this all to end," said Davis, who has staved off a new onslaught of media badgering for stories to mark the first anniversary of her aunt's death.

"I have had enough," she said, fighting tears.

It was Nov. 16, 2001, when Lundgren, a private but respected longtime resident of the quiet Naugatuck Valley community, was first admitted to Griffin Hospital with flu-like symptoms. A few days later, it was determined that she had somehow inhaled deadly anthrax spores. The FBI, state police and officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention converged on her home to determine how she came in contact with anthrax. The international and national media swarmed into town to tell yet another tense tale of anthrax poisoning.

Davis, other family members and close friends struggled to maintain a private vigil at Lundgren's bedside, pondering how the piece of suspected anthrax-contaminated mail found its way to her mailbox and ultimately killed her. She became the fifth and final fatality traced to the anthrax outbreak, which exposed scores to the deadly bacterium and terrorized an already jittery nation.

"I am still trying to cope with everything," said Davis, whose quiet strength has been cited by friends and relatives. "I thank God that my faith has been indestructible and my hope is that this will never happen to anyone else or any family, again."

Quality Of Life

"It's the worst thing that has ever happened to me," said Leroy Richmond (case 14), a 57-year-old postal worker who contracted the disease in October 2001 as a mail sorter in the Brentwood mail center in Washington and is still recovering in his Virginia home.

The father of three, including a 7-year-old son, is also getting counseling and wrestles with what some have diagnosed as depression as he struggles to rebound from the illness that almost killed him.

"I think the worst is that I don't have the quality of life I had before I got anthrax," said Richmond. "I can't remember things like I used to, and I don't have the stamina to put in the kind of day I used to before this happened."

He relates how he struggled for days to paint an 8-by-15-foot upstairs wall recently.

"It took me three days to finish it," he said. "I just get so tired."

A once-active father and husband who used the hit the ground running at 3:45 a.m. every day, Richmond leads a different life now. There are naps of necessity rather than indulgence, the isolation of being nearly homebound and growing concern that the activities he once shared with his son may never be more than memories.

"We used to skate together at the roller-skating rink and now I barely have the energy to do anything but watch," said Richmond. "You don't get that time back."

Richmond is also seeing a therapist.

"I was diagnosed with depression and am seeing a psychiatrist," he said.

Emphatic that he is not angry at anyone nor blaming anyone for what happened to him, Richmond continues to grieve over the deaths of two co-workers, Thomas Morris (case 15) and Joseph Curseen (case 16), who both succumbed to anthrax inhalation from the same postal facility.

"God left me here for a reason and I never ask questions," said Richmond, who is considering legal action against the U.S. Postal Service. "I've been on talk shows and news shows and I tell anyone who will listen about being careful about anthrax."

Resigned to the probability that whoever was responsible for the tainted mail will never be found, Richmond's main criticism is the behavior of some politicians he felt were less than sincere about their concerns for victims.

"I'd see them on television talking about how concerned they were about us," he said. "Now you hear nothing. They don't even know who we are."

Richmond is on a mission, convinced that the best defense against any further bioterrorism is education. He speaks regularly at blood drives because he received two transfusions during his hospitalization and wants others to know how donations can benefit someone else.

"My greatest fear is that this will happen again," he says about any future anthrax outbreak. "People cannot become complacent."

Unforeseen Benefits

For others, like Ernesto Blanco (case 7), surviving anthrax has had its good side.

"You should see all the things I have," enthused Blanco, a Florida mailroom worker who recovered and is back at work after contracting the disease at American Media in Boca Raton last September.

Footballs signed by members of the Miami Dolphins professional football team, photos of him ringing the starting bell on Wall Street and bags full of newspaper clippings are some of the souvenirs the affable 74-year-old has collected in the aftermath of his bout with anthrax.

"Everybody has been so nice to me since I got anthrax," said Blanco, a Cuban immigrant who says he feels fine these days. "I got to go to New York twice," he said referring to guest appearances on different news and talk shows.

Unlike some others, Blanco said he has no interest in suing anyone except the person responsible for sending the tainted mail that spread the deadly anthrax.

"The person who sent the anthrax in the mail is the one everyone should be mad at, no one else," said Blanco. "I think the government officials did everything they could to find out who did it. Maybe we will never know."

There were days during the throes of his illness when he was scared, he said.

"I was afraid of dying at first, but my faith, I am Catholic, I knew it was time to trust in God," said the father of five and grandfather of seven.

He admits he is puzzled and sometimes feels guilty that fellow worker Robert Stevens (case 5) was not as lucky. Stevens, a photo editor who worked in the same building as Blanco, died three days after being admitted to the hospital.

"I feel bad because I might have brought the mail that killed him," said Blanco.

Lundgren Anniversary

Davis is hoping that today's anniversary of her aunt's death will bring closure.

While emphasizing that she wants her aunt to finally "rest in peace," Davis is both flattered and pleased that her aunt's legacy will include a new memorial education program at Griffin Hospital where the elderly woman died. On Tuesday, she dressed up to travel to the hospital where she and her aunt were acknowledged at the first annual Ottilie Lundgren Memorial Lecture.

"It's not the kind of legacy she ever imagined," said Davis. "It's a bittersweet way to remember her, but in a way, I am awfully proud of her."