Two weeks later Wallace, 56, was diagnosed with inhalation anthrax, the deadliest form of the disease. "But I never experienced fear," says the devout Baptist. Of 11 people who have contracted it since Sept. 11, five have died. Most recently it claimed Ottilie Lundgren, 94, of Oxford, Conn., who died Nov. 21 in a case that still has experts wondering how the reclusive widow could have come in contact with the germ.
Hospitalized in serious condition, Wallace stayed for 18 days. The divorced mother of two grown children, Coleman, 27, and Ramona Ramsey-Pinedo, 35, she is still at home recuperating, receiving workmen's compensation and is undecided about whether to return to her job at the post office, where she has worked for a total of 14 years and where two other employees contracted anthrax—one inhalation, one the milder skin form—in recent weeks. (Both survived.) Wallace, who also fills in some days as a substitute teacher at Willingboro's Memorial Junior High, wanted to share her story to help calm the nation's fears. Even faced with a potentially deadly disease, she says, "there is hope." She spoke at home to correspondent Fannie Weinstein about her triumph over anthrax.
On Tuesday, Oct. 9, I was working my normal 3:30 to midnight shift. My supervisor had told me to start up a sorting machine, and a short time later it jammed. Typically this happens when people send small gifts inside a regular envelope. I removed the letter. But then, an hour later, the machine stopped again. I had to call one of the center's mechanics. He used an air gun to clear dust from the electronic eye that reads the addresses. I never thought the dust might be toxic. Still, I turned my back to avoid inhaling any of it. But I was right in the line of fire.
I worked the next three days. But that Sunday, I started feeling sick to my stomach. I didn't vomit, but I felt very nauseous. I also had diarrhea. I still wasn't feeling very well Monday morning, but I had agreed to teach a seventh grade English class at the junior high where I substitute. After-ward I went to the postal center. When I got home that night, I felt feverish and took some aspirin. Tuesday morning I felt even worse. I called the school and said I couldn't teach. But I did go to work, and I began feeling progressively worse.
That afternoon, the plant manager called everyone into the conference room. He told us that a mail handler who'd been operating the cancellation machine on Sept. 18—the day the letters to Tom Brokaw and the New York Post were postmarked in our plant—had been tested for anthrax. He distributed a bulletin about anthrax, and we were issued vinyl gloves and masks. That made me think something serious was going on, but not to the point where I became anxious. Meanwhile I was feeling this bone-chilling cold. I just couldn't get warm. I went to my locker at one point to get a sweater, even though I already had one on.
The next morning I was still feverish and felt extremely weak. I went to my doctor's office. Her partner examined me and said he thought I had the flu or a virus. He told me to take Tylenol and return in two days.
But I got sicker and sicker. I was totally fatigued. I was having a lot of trouble breathing, and my fever was raging. At one point it was over 102. I had no appetite. My mother would bring me soup, but just the smell of it made my stomach churn. By the time my son Coleman drove me to the doctor Friday afternoon, I could barely walk. I had this intense pain shooting through my joints. At this point I began wondering whether I might have been exposed to anthrax. I was so sick I didn't even think about what that might mean. I just wanted to feel better.
When my doctor finished examining me, she handed me a prescription that said, "Admit to pulmonary if necessary," and told me to go to the emergency room at Virtua Memorial Hospital right away. As soon as I got there, a team of E.R. physicians saw me. Dr. Douglas Cohen, a pulmonary specialist, told me I had severe pneumonia and checked me in. I asked, "How did I get pneumonia?" No one could tell me.
I consider myself a spiritual person. I closed my eyes and saw this light inside of me, and I said, "Lord, I'm not going to let a bug or any bacteria take me away from here." Because that light stayed within me the whole time I was in the hospital, I never felt that I was dying.
By the next day I was on three antibiotics—Cipro, Rifampin and Vancomycin. (The doctors said later they were being cautious in case I had anthrax.) They also began running tests, like chest X rays, which showed I had fluid in my lungs. Plus, a CAT scan showed some abnormality in the lymph nodes in my chest. All possible signs of anthrax. I finally became convinced when this doctor from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta came to my room. It turned out Dr. Martin Topiel, the hospital's director of infection control, had contacted the New Jersey Department of Health, which had contacted the CDC. The CDC doctor told me they were studying my blood. She also had a detailed diagram of the mail plant that showed every machine. She wanted to know how I might have put my health at risk. While I talked to her, it all came together in my mind: I must have been exposed to anthrax when the mechanic had cleaned the machine.
I asked my brother Coleman, a Baptist pastor, to bring whatever information about anthrax he could find on the Internet. It said people with inhalation anthrax had a 5 percent chance of survival. Dr. Topiel told me to disregard that; they just didn't have enough information.
It was hard to breathe. I felt like someone had put a tourniquet around my chest and just kept tightening it. My night sweats from the fever were so bad a nurse's aide had to wake me in the middle of the night to change my gown and linens. By the morning I'd be sopping wet again.
To help drain the fluid, the doctors inserted tubes into the sides of my chest. They kept them in for a week or so. It was painful, but as the fluid drained, it became easier to breathe. That's when I turned the corner. The antibiotics also helped break my fever. When they removed the tubes and I was able to move around on my own, I really started feeling better.
On Saturday, Nov. 3, Dr. Topiel told me I would be going home in two days. I was excited. And I decided that I wanted to share what had happened to me. I wanted everyone to know that anthrax is beatable. I also wanted to tell people that when we're under attack, we still have to stand together and that we're still the U.S. of A.
I went home on Monday, Nov. 5. The doctors didn't want me to overdo it. They didn't want me to go up and down stairs. Now a physical therapist comes three times a week, and I do leg and arm exercises to build up my stamina and breathing exercises on a pulmonary machine to keep my lungs inflated. I still get worn out and my joints ache, but I'm able to talk for increasingly longer periods of time. And I can empty the dishwasher without getting tired. Just the other day I walked to the corner nearest my house.
The doctors say they think I will recover 100 percent and that there shouldn't be long-term effects. I can't help but think, though, how it might affect me down the road. I haven't decided yet about going back to work. It's not that I'm afraid, I just don't feel like I need to put myself in harm's way again. Now I slow down and enjoy each day by paying better attention to things that matter, like my friends and family.