|For Terrorism Survivors,
Painful Memories Remain After Wounds Have Healed|
By Elizabeth A. Weiss
worker James Harper with his 3-year-old
(Newsline photo by Melanie
Capital News Service
Friday, March 4, 2005
WASHINGTON - James Harper still has nightmares about what happened.
After watching his friend Joseph Curseen die in 2001 from anthrax
exposure at the Brentwood postal facility where they worked, Harper said he
is more isolated now. The Accokeek resident still goes through periods of
depression that prevent him from keeping a steady job.
"At times it's hard falling asleep," Harper said.
Other Brentwood workers are also still dealing with the effects of the
attack. Some developed physical conditions, such as enlarged hearts, kidney
failure and respiratory problems, from the exposure, the stress or the
But most said they suffered, and still are suffering, even though their
scars are not as obvious.
Health officials say psychological consequences of terror attacks can be
more destructive than physical wounds, and they are beginning to train
health workers in how to identify and handle victims who experience
"I think the stresses are still prevalent," said Dena Briscoe, a fellow
Brentwood postal worker who founded a support group for survivors, Brentwood
Exposed. The "majority of lives have changed," she said.
"Post-traumatic stress disorder and psychological consequences" can be
more destructive to lives than physical wounds, and cost more money, said
Victor Welzant, director of acute trauma services at Sheppard Pratt Health
Such afflictions are "long term and insidious, show up later, last
longer, and don't get diagnosed initially," he said.
Using federal bioterrorism preparedness grants, Sheppard Pratt has been
offering seminars to educate health workers in Maryland on how to identify
and handle such victims. The 20 scheduled seminars, which are being offered
in conjunction with the Maryland Hospital Association, began in September
and will continue through April.
"We're trying to prepare hospital and mental health personnel, ambulance
personnel, on how to deal with emotional aspects of (trauma) in the initial
response," said Richard J. Ottenstein, chief executive officer of the
Workplace Trauma Center, which offers training and response services.
"Any kind of disaster situation where it's going to affect people
emotionally, creating anxiety, stress, grief, any of those things," said
Ottenstein, who has spoken at the seminars.
More than half of disaster workers can be expected to develop significant
post-traumatic stress in their careers, according to the National Institute
of Mental Health. It also said that psychological impairments from a
disaster can outnumber physical trauma 10-1.
Helen Barnes, a geropsychiatric nursing counselor for Prince George's
County Department of Family Services, stressed at a recent seminar that a
bioterrorist attack is not simply meant to inflict physical pain.
"The goal isn't necessarily violence, but to affect a community
psychologically," she said.
After the first priorities of food, shelter and water, Ottenstein said
that trauma response can include an onsite support center where workers can
talk with victims "about all of the stresses they might encounter, help them
to process what they are going through and connect them with resources."
Resources can include health care, education on health-related issues,
help with the adjustment to a new job location, and spiritual contacts. We
would "follow up till we could see they were doing OK," Ottenstein said.
For Briscoe, follow-up included starting up the support group. Doctors
urged her to do it, she said, and the meetings became a form of healing for
the "community of survivors." The Clinton woman also said that doctors urged
her to attend the funerals of her colleagues Curseen and Thomas Morris to
get her back into society.
It was not an easy process.
"It was hard to come out of the house," she said.
For six weeks following the attack, Briscoe could not work. She only went
out to see doctors for treatment for her exposure to the anthrax, which
included at least 60 days of heavy antibiotics.
The medications for the Brentwood workers were changed early in their
course of treatment, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
thought that the original drugs might only be masking their anthrax symptoms
and not eradicating the illness.
The Brentwood building was contaminated with deadly anthrax after a
letter to then-Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was routed through the massive
postal facility, which handled mail coming into the Capitol. The letter was
laced with the deadly spores.
The fears and uncertainties reached beyond the immediate victims:
Forestville resident Vincent Gagnon, another Brentwood survivor, at first
worried about exposing his children and grandchildren to anthrax.
"I feared for my life," said Gagnon, who said he deals with his troubles
through humor, even though it might not always be funny.
Both Gagnon and Harper said it helps to have someone to talk to.
"It helps to have somebody who actually listens," said Gagnon. Otherwise,
he said, "I'm not sure my wife would still have me."
University of Maryland
Philip Merrill College of
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